What has the FDA got against cheese? Or more precisely, why does it go after artisanal products and European imports as though they could be a latent source of an Ebola outbreak? The most recent attack on domestic producers—and cheese lovers, for that matter—came a couple of weeks ago when the FDA declared that cheese would no longer be allowed to age on wooden boards because it is unsanitary. Given that nearly all cheese worth eating is aged on wooden boards, this was a potentially devastating declaration (large manufacturers who produce a product labelled ‘cheese’ that differs only slightly in look and taste from the plastic it is wrapped in wouldn’t be affected). Small producers saw their livelihoods threatened, while all the good stuff from Europe would also be banned.
Fortunately the resulting clamor forced the FDA to back down and pretend the whole thing had been a misunderstanding, though they ominously added that they wanted to “engage with the artisanal cheesemaking community, state officials and others to learn more about current practices and discuss the safety of aging certain types of cheeses on wooden shelving”—that consultation doesn’t guarantee that the ban won’t eventually be enforced if they don’t like what they hear.
The FDA has long been acting like a bully boy to the artisanal cheese industry, ratcheting up enforcement on raw cheese and shutting down producers. And then there’s the ridiculous ban on raw-milk cheeses aged less than 60 days, as though Americans need protecting while the foolish French and Italians are dropping by the thousands from eating soft cheese. Yes, unpasteurized cheeses do carry a risk, particularly for pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems, but so do any foods—the largest outbreak of listeriosis in the US which killed 33 people was traced to cantaloupes, yet the FDA didn’t go on a search and destroy mission after melons. You are more likely to become sick through food-born illness from eating meat and eggs that are produced in concentrated animal feeding operations (factory farming) than anything else.
But the FDA doesn’t seem to care about the link between actual illnesses and raw cheese—their only criteria is if a pathogen is present, no matter how small. While the European Union allows small traces of listeria in cheese, the FDA goes nuts if it finds a tiny amount—witness the 2010 raid on Morningland Dairy, MO, which saw their whole inventory tossed into landfill even though their cheese hadn’t made anyone sick.
You don’t need to be paranoid to imagine that the FDA’s goal is to ban raw dairy products entirely. Perhaps you don’t need to be cynical to spot a link between the FDA’s actions and big business—artisanal cheese production has been booming in recent years, so a clamp down will only benefit agribusiness that makes plastic ‘cheese’. It’s got to the point where the FDA’s over-regulation has me agreeing with the Cato Institute for Christ’s sake, and the haunting, terrifying thought that maybe Ayn Rand was right.