The future of popular cheeses such as Dunbarton Blue, an open-air cured blue from Roelli Cheese near Shullsburg that is aged on wood, is uncertain after a recent decision by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Cheese producers won’t have to lose the wooden boards used to age their cheese after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration backed off its claims that the boards were unsanitary and posed a health risk amid a flurry of protests by elected officials from Wisconsin and elsewhere.

The FDA issued a statement Wednesday that said it’s going to work with the artisan cheese producers to determine whether certain types of cheese can be aged safely on wooden shelving. The aging process gives cheeses their unique flavor and appeal.

“Historically, the FDA has expressed concern about whether wood meets this requirement and has noted these concerns in inspectional findings,” the FDA said. “The FDA is always open to evidence that shows that wood can be safely used for specific purposes, such as aging cheese.”

The FDA’s statement was issued in response to a letter written by Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection secretary Ben Brancel urging FDA officials to take a second look at its policy, DATCP spokesman Jim Dick said.

Brancel sought out the FDA after the agency cited several New York operations for using the boards that have been an integral part of aging a wide variety of cheeses for more than a century by producers from around the world. What shocked the cheese industry is that the FDA fined the cheese producers despite state laws that permit them and no recalls of any cheeses because of unsanitary wooden boards.

“I am pleased to see the FDA responding quickly to this important matter,” Brancel said. “DATCP will continue to work with the FDA as it engages the cheese making community on this issue.”

Wisconsin, which leads the nation in cheese production, also permits the use of wooden boards to age cheese as long as producers follow industry procedures for keeping them sanitary. More than 33 million pounds of state cheese ages on wood, according to John Umhoefer, the executive director of the Wisconsin Cheesemakers Association.

The FDA heard from several other Wisconsin officials, including Gov. Scott Walker, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, and U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison. Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross also talked to FDA officials.

Walker said he was pleased with the FDA’s response to Brancel’s letter. He added that the cheese industry is vitally important to the state as well as the nation.

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Pocan said he was planning to join members of Congress from Wisconsin, Vermont, New Hampshire, Oregon, Connecticut, New York and California to introduce a bipartisan amendment that would prevent the FDA from banning the use of wood to age cheese.

In a letter to FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg, Baldwin said any changes in the FDA’s cheese board policy would have “serious ramifications for Wisconsin’s world-renown cheese makers who have safely aged their cheeses on wooden boards for generations.”

“Changes in the FDA’s cheese board policy would have serious ramifications for these businesses, and, if the federal government intends to change these policies, cheese makers should be fully integrated into the process,” Baldwin continued.

She later added, “We must not rush ahead with policies that do not fully account for the impact they will have on industry and consumers.”

The FDA’s policy came into question after it cited the New York cheese operations and the New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets’ Division of Milk Control and Dairy Services asked the FDA for clarification on the issue.

A response by Monica Metz of FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition’s (CFSAN) Dairy and Egg Branch included results from two reports that she said helped her conclude that wooden boards can’t be adequately cleaned or sanitized.

But an article published by the UW-Madison Center for Dairy Research last year used the same reports to offer a different opinion.

The CDR article said the reports conclude the dangerous bacteria can appear on some boards, but they disappear if they are cleaned properly.

The FDA statement issued Wednesday also said there were no requirements from the Food Safety Modernization Act that was signed into law in 2011 that addressed of wooden boards.

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Rob Schultz has won multiple writing awards at the state and national levels and covers an array of topics for the Wisconsin State Journal in south-central and southwestern Wisconsin.