The mainstream media has been full of handwringing that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration seemed a few days ago to be banning the centuries-old practice of aging cheese on wood boards.

A Forbe magazine writer said the decision “has rattled hundreds of small businesses across the United States.  Consumers who eat any kind of aged cheese should prepare for a potentially catastrophic disruption in the market for artisan, non-processed cheese.”


The writer suggested this was a big-business/small-business issue: “Corporate cheese makers like Leprino and Kraft will be able to weather this regulatory storm — they don’t make cheese, they manufacture cheese, and as such they do not follow the centuries old artisan techniques.”


Then, just as quickly as news about a ban on wood boards spread, came word of change, that the FDA was open to hearing about whether wood might be safely used. On its Facebook page, the FDA said it had “historically” been concerned about the safety of wood, but that the wood boards were okay…..for now. 


The New York Times’ editorial page editors sniffily assessed that they knew better than anyone else what had happened at the FDA: “Naturally, conservatives and libertarians see this move as yet another assault on liberty by the Obama administration. It’s not. It’s a dumb mistake by the F.D.A., not a metaphor for overreach…” 


Let’s get one thing out of the way before I explain what’s going on here: The only reason this whole story got so much play in the mainstream media is that no one used the magic words, “raw milk.” This was cast as a problem for “artisanal cheese producers.” Lots of mainstream media reporters and editors love their artisanal cheeses, often selling at $20-plus a pound, as much as the next stiff. They forget that a big chunk of “artisanal” cheese is raw milk cheese; had this wood problem been presented as a problem of “raw milk cheese,” then the mainstream media would have ignored it because they buy into the FDA-CDC argument that raw milk is inherently unsafe (ignoring the reality that they are consuming raw milk via cheeses, without any ill effects)


Okay, what was really happening here? It’s essential to understand that the initial announcement of a ban on wood boards isn’t some kind of one-shot deal, a screwup by a misinformed bureaucrat. No, it’s the exact opposite. 


The wood board dustup is just the latest chapter in a ten-year war the FDA has been waging against the booming artisanal cheese/raw milk cheese market. (The American Cheese Society, which has more than 300 artisanal cheese maker members, has said about half make raw milk cheese.)  


The war started in 2004, shortly after the arrival of John Sheehan as head of the FDA’s Division of Plant and Dairy Food Safety. He had arrived from corporate cheese manufacturer Leprino (noted in the Forbes article, above).  Sheehan telegraphed his FDA agenda with an article in Food Safety Magazine


Sheehan declared in the 2004 Food Safety Magazine article that the FDA’s 55-year practice of allowing the production and sale of raw milk cheese was a safety hazard.  He announced “the finding that 60-day aging is largely ineffectual as a means of reducing levels of certain pathogens in cheeses. With this information in hand, FDA is now developing a risk profile for raw milk cheeses, which will aid in the Agency’s assessment of the requirements for processing these cheeses.”


Nobody at the time took much note of Sheehan’s radical assessment that an FDA regulation that had been working fine for more than fifty years was suddenly a threat to public health. But since then, Sheehan has followed through on his conviction that artisanal cheese/raw milk cheese is unsafe. 


Back in 2010, the American Cheese Society and its artisanal cheese maker members reported that more than 100 of the members (three-fourths of those who responded to a survey) had been inspected by the FDA that year—many times the normal 3 to 8 per cent inspected. The FDA found very few safety problems, the members reported. 


Then, early last year, the FDA came out with a study declaring that soft raw milk cheeses were 60 to 150 times more dangerous than pasteurized cheeses….despite the absence of a single illness from the raw cheeses in 23 years. 


Finally, late last year, the FDA informed the American Cheese Society that it planned an intensive pilot testing program of artisanal and raw milk cheese over the coming year. 


Throughout all these probes and studies and threats and inspections by the FDA against artisanal cheese, the agency has yet to come out with any changes in its rules….until this week, when it suddenly seemed to ban wood boards for aging cheese. The outcry was such that the FDA quickly pulled back. 


Of course, that’s not the end of the war on artisanal cheese. The wood boards initiative was just another probe, another test. It’s just the latest assault in a ten-year war. But absolutely not the last. 


You see, as Forbes suggested, the FDA’s war against artisanal cheeses is part of a push by corporate cheese manufacturers to eliminate ever-more-serious competition from the upstarts. Sheehan’s background in the corporate cheese world makes him the perfect general to be waging this war. 

Sheehan’s big problem is that he has been unable, over ten years of effort, to demonstrate that artisanal/raw milk cheeses are unsafe. Whatever his opinions, he needs a safety agenda, and he just hasn’t been able to come up with it…..yet.