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Outrage in Wisconsin: FDA scrutinizes artisanal cheese aging

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The Food and Drug Administration's new stance on an old and popular method of aging cheeses had artisan cheese makers in Wisconsin waging war.

Earlier this week, the FDA called the centuries-old practice of aging cheese on wooden boards unsanitary after the agency cited several New York operations for listeria.

The FDA issued a statement banning the use of the wooden boards, which sparked outrage within Wisconsin's artisan cheese community and had the American Cheese Society asking the FDA to rethink its decision in a position statement released on its website Tuesday.

"A sense of disbelief and distress is rippling through the U.S. artisan cheese community," wrote the Wisconsin-based blog Cheese Underground.

At least 20 million pounds of cheese rests on wooden boards in Wisconsin, the executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association told the Wisconsin State Journal. Changing the way the cheeses are aged would have an effect on the unique taste of many popular cheeses, the newspaper notes.

It could also mean the end of American-made Limburger cheese.

“Without the boards, it will be the end of Limburger cheese made in the United States,” Myron Olson, the owner of the Chalet Cheese Cooperative in Monroe, which is the only American producer of Limburger cheese, told the Wisconsin State Journal.

He says that the cultures that have been on the wooden boards for generations add the unique flavor and smell to the cheeses. He adds that there's no alternative to wooden boards that would have the same affect.

The reason for the FDA's position on wooden boards came after an upstate New York cheese company was cited for unsanitary conditions and listeria contamination, Syracuse.com reports. But the American Cheese Society and the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research maintain that aging cheese on wooden boards is safe, as long as the boards are cleaned and maintained properly.

Luckily for Wisconsin's cheese industry, the FDA backed away from its previous statement after getting a lot of backlash Tuesday. The FDA said in a statement that it isn't banning wooden boards and it "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," according to Forbes.

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