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Public Health

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Cheese is a weird food. It's more or less milk that's artfully gone bad, with bacteria and even mold intentionally introduced into the process. While that may sound like a recipe to make you sick, as just about all of us know from experience in today's world, you're no more likely to get food poisoning from cheese than pretty much anything else.

So it was with a hearty mix of annoyance and alarm that the food community fielded a recent comment by a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) representative that "[t]he use of wooden shelves, rough or otherwise, for cheese ripening does not conform to [FDA] requirements, which require that 'all plant equipment and utensils shall be so designed and of such material and workmanship as to be adequately cleanable, and shall be properly maintained.' […] Wooden shelves or boards cannot be adequately cleaned and sanitized."

The comment was in response to a request for clarification by the New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets' Division of Milk Control and Dairy Services, after the FDA cited several New York cheese-makers for violations.

In light of the foodie furor, the FDA has clarified its position, noting, "The FDA does not have a new policy banning the use of wooden shelves in cheese-making, nor is there any [Food Safety Modernization Act] requirement in effect that addresses this issue. Moreover, the FDA has not taken any enforcement action based solely on the use of wooden shelves."

But the FDA statement leaves the door open for just that action:

"In the interest of public health, the FDA's current regulations state that utensils and other surfaces that contact food must be 'adequately cleanable' and properly maintained. Historically, the FDA has expressed concern about whether wood meets this requirement and has noted these concerns in inspectional findings. FDA is always open to evidence that shows that wood can be safely used for specific purposes, such as aging cheese. The FDA will engage with the artisanal cheese-making community to determine whether certain types of cheeses can safely be made by aging them on wooden shelving."

All but the most anti-government folk have little problem with governmental regulation/enforcement that has the genuine effect of promoting the general welfare. It's more than reasonable to have an organization like the FDA because, as history has taught us again and again, a free market of any scale sans oversight is a free market full of wholesale abuse. If you're going to have industrial-level production of food, you damn well better have someone at least attempting to mind the store.

But the recent cheese brouhaha points up a problem with the U.S. government: it often fails to mind its own business. The FDA's business, for example, is "Protecting and Promoting Your Health" (italics in original). That's a good business to be in. But taking a libertarian line—which I definitely do—the government should restrict people's freedom no more than it has to in order to safeguard against the impingement of others' rights.

Were there a problem in the artisanal cheese-making community, were a particular cheese-maker or a general practice making people sick, intervention—by the FDA, the police, whomever—would be perfectly appropriate, even necessary. But that's not the case here. Using wood to age cheese is a practice that goes back hundreds of years. And as L.V. Anderson noted in a recent Slate article, although improperly maintained boards can harbor listeria, a genus of bacteria that you don't want your stomach to touch with a 10-foot pole, "[W]ell maintained boards are home to a rich ecosystem of bacteria and fungi that are harmless to human health yet crucial to cheese texture and flavor."

Part of the problem many people have with the FDA is that it seems to be all over the map when it comes to protecting and promoting our health. On the one hand there are regulations like this wood/cheese deal (which have no corollary in not-exactly-savagely-unsanitary places like Canada), while at the same time the FDA is seen as often being too quick to green-light dangerous pharmaceutical medications, such as recently occurred with Zohydro, a new opioid that's such an obvious candidate for addiction and abuse that 29 states have asked the FDA to reconsider its approval. (This, of course, while the federal government continues to categorize cannabis in "the most dangerous class of drugs with a high potential for abuse and potentially severe psychological and/or physical dependence" and claims it has no acceptable medicinal value.)

"Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen," Albert Einstein is alleged to have said. While there's an aculeate truth in the quip, there's also a sense of common sense that is far less mindless. Sometimes collective wisdom is the most pragmatic course. Take, for example, the suggestion of a commenter on the Slate article:

"If you think the wooden boards raise the risk factors, make cheesemakers put a label on that says "aged on wood." People can then decide whether they want to run the risk. Let people decide for themselves."

Over the past few decades the federal government has required more disclosure concerning food items, which has increasingly enabled consumers to make informed choices. That's good. We should want an informed populace. And an informed populace should be allowed to choose to put whatever they want in their bodies, including cheeses made in the same manner that they were before there ever was a FDA or a federal government or a country called the United States of America. What we don't need is to worry about reinventing the wheel.

Source: Greggory Moore, When Government Should Keep Its Hands Off the Wheel, Moore Lowdown, HWN, July 5, 2014.

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Last Updated : Thursday, March 29, 2018