Fed bureaucrats back down on foolish rules

The ruling class loves its artisanal cheese, and won’t let any pointy-headed bureaucrats take it away from them. That’s the only conclusion that can be drawn from a kerfuffle playing out in the Food and Drug Administration.

The arbitrary power of federal bureaucrats to create out of thin air rules with the force of law is creating a demi-tyranny.  Normally, the victims of this tyranny have no recourse, but on occasion the bureaucrats stub their toes on the interests of the ruling class, and when this happens, they back down. It would be funny if it were not so consequential for all the other victims whose interests are more mundane and fail to attract the attention of the rich and powerful.

The saga of the FDA’s foray into regulating the making of cheese offer an object lesson.  The Huffpo summarizes:

The FDA announced last week that it is imposing a new ban on using wooden boards in the cheese aging process, citing that the material is too hard to properly sanitize and puts consumers at risk of foodborne illness. A spokeswoman for the agency, in quoting the Current Good Manufacturing Practice (cGMP) rules, stated:

"The use of wooden shelves, rough or otherwise, for cheese ripening does not conform to cGMP 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." 21 CFR 110.40(a). Wooden shelves or boards cannot be adequately cleaned and sanitized. The porous structure of wood enables it to absorb and retain bacteria, therefore bacteria generally colonize not only the surface but also the inside layers of wood. The shelves or boards used for aging make direct contact with finished products; hence they could be a potential source of pathogenic microorganisms in the finished products."

This flies in the face of centuries of cheese-making experience. Production of cheese depends on micro-organisms. Benign bacteria are nature’s workshops. Anyone involved in winemaking (as I have been for many years) or our cousins in cheese-making,  understands this. But bureaucrats sitting in air-conditioned offices in Washington, DC don’t get it.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, full of affluent and well-connected foodies, the reaction was apoplectic. The San Francisco Chronicle featured a front page story with tales of woe from artisanal cheese makers in Sonoma and Napa counties, while gourmet retailers feared they would not be able to import European cheeses made by aging on wooden boards, too (because it works so well, as learned over centuries of experience). Wine makers worried that barrel aging in oak, also porous to bacteria (that’s the point!) could be next.

It didn’t take very long for the FDA to reconsider. Forbes reports:

The FDA is backing away (at least temporarily) from a policy statement that declared cheese makers would no longer be able to age their cheese on wooden boards.  The statement caused outrage in the artisan cheese community and consumers quickly came to the aid of the industry signing onto a petition and expressing their outrage through social media.  The American Cheese Society released aposition statement, and it was clear that the industry was prepared to fight back if the FDA did not change its position.

Today, the FDA claimed that it in fact had not issued a new policy, they stated:

“The FDA does not have a new policy banning the use of wooden shelves in cheese-making, nor is there any FSMA requirement in effect that addresses this issue. Moreover, the FDA has not taken any enforcement action based solely on the use of wooden shelves.

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 well and good. But what about the people making products that the wealthy and connected don’t care much about?

The ruling class loves its artisanal cheese, and won’t let any pointy-headed bureaucrats take it away from them. That’s the only conclusion that can be drawn from a kerfuffle playing out in the Food and Drug Administration.

The arbitrary power of federal bureaucrats to create out of thin air rules with the force of law is creating a demi-tyranny.  Normally, the victims of this tyranny have no recourse, but on occasion the bureaucrats stub their toes on the interests of the ruling class, and when this happens, they back down. It would be funny if it were not so consequential for all the other victims whose interests are more mundane and fail to attract the attention of the rich and powerful.

The saga of the FDA’s foray into regulating the making of cheese offer an object lesson.  The Huffpo summarizes:

The FDA announced last week that it is imposing a new ban on using wooden boards in the cheese aging process, citing that the material is too hard to properly sanitize and puts consumers at risk of foodborne illness. A spokeswoman for the agency, in quoting the Current Good Manufacturing Practice (cGMP) rules, stated:

"The use of wooden shelves, rough or otherwise, for cheese ripening does not conform to cGMP 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." 21 CFR 110.40(a). Wooden shelves or boards cannot be adequately cleaned and sanitized. The porous structure of wood enables it to absorb and retain bacteria, therefore bacteria generally colonize not only the surface but also the inside layers of wood. The shelves or boards used for aging make direct contact with finished products; hence they could be a potential source of pathogenic microorganisms in the finished products."

This flies in the face of centuries of cheese-making experience. Production of cheese depends on micro-organisms. Benign bacteria are nature’s workshops. Anyone involved in winemaking (as I have been for many years) or our cousins in cheese-making,  understands this. But bureaucrats sitting in air-conditioned offices in Washington, DC don’t get it.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, full of affluent and well-connected foodies, the reaction was apoplectic. The San Francisco Chronicle featured a front page story with tales of woe from artisanal cheese makers in Sonoma and Napa counties, while gourmet retailers feared they would not be able to import European cheeses made by aging on wooden boards, too (because it works so well, as learned over centuries of experience). Wine makers worried that barrel aging in oak, also porous to bacteria (that’s the point!) could be next.

It didn’t take very long for the FDA to reconsider. Forbes reports:

The FDA is backing away (at least temporarily) from a policy statement that declared cheese makers would no longer be able to age their cheese on wooden boards.  The statement caused outrage in the artisan cheese community and consumers quickly came to the aid of the industry signing onto a petition and expressing their outrage through social media.  The American Cheese Society released aposition statement, and it was clear that the industry was prepared to fight back if the FDA did not change its position.

Today, the FDA claimed that it in fact had not issued a new policy, they stated:

“The FDA does not have a new policy banning the use of wooden shelves in cheese-making, nor is there any FSMA requirement in effect that addresses this issue. Moreover, the FDA has not taken any enforcement action based solely on the use of wooden shelves.

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 well and good. But what about the people making products that the wealthy and connected don’t care much about?