Hazardous Cheese

The government, in the form of the Food and Drug Administration, made some noises two weeks ago about forcing cheese makers to cease and desist from placing their product on wooden boards during the aging process. Seems that the Feds have discovered a microbe (called Isteria) that may, or may not, colonize these boards and take up residence on the cheeses that ripen on them. The boards can't properly be sanitized, according to the special agents assigned to the Safe Cheese Bureau of the FDA. The only thing for it, then, is to outlaw wood and compel cheese makers to use plastic or metal. Or to face fines and jail.

"Whattaya in for?" says one convict to another.

"I put cheese on a slab of oak during ripening."

"Oh, man. It's hard time for you, then."

Now, people have been making and eating cheese for a long time. Hundreds of years. And for all that time, the material of choice, for the shelving of cheeses as they aged was wood. In fact, many cheese makers - and probably a few cheese eaters - believe that the boards do something for the flavor of the cheese. Something that would be lost in a switch to other materials.

It is unclear how many people have been made sick by eating cheese that sat on a wooden plank while it aged. But obviously not enough to make people stop eating cheese. You take risks in this life. And if eating cheese is one of them, then add it to the list. The cheese police were, of course, just doing their jobs. The job of most of those working for the government these days being to make life more difficult for their fellow citizens. Sometimes in nuisance ways, as in the regulating of the types of surfaces upon which it is permitted to age a round of cheese. Sometimes in more drastic fashion, as in hiding the names of patients at Veterans Administration hospitals and, thus, denying them care and, perhaps, even sentencing them to premature deaths.

Same government. Just different divisions, working different sides of the street. The edicts handed down by the FDA's Division of Cheese were particularly ominous for Vermont since the state has seen a robust expansion in the number of artisanal cheese makers over the last couple of decades. These are, in the main, small operations and often, merely a married couple, who operate out of paid out farms that would, otherwise, be producing nothing but briars and aspen thickets. But resourceful people have found a way to make them productive and to engage in value-added agriculture. They don't even get subsidized which, come to think of it, may be what the government has against them. The bureaucrats in Washington cannot stand the idea of any enterprise that is not subsidized and regulated and, hence, at their mercy. So it should come as no big surprise to learn that that big producers in the military-industrial cheese complex don't use wood and have already gone to plastic and metal. Only the small operators would be hurt by the FDA edict. Them, and the people who prefer artisan cheese to the bland, standardized mass-produced, government-certified stuff.

The news of the banning of wood from cheese making sent shivers through the Vermont community of artisan makers. It might, some said, be their ruin. So, this being a crisis created by government, a hero from the ranks of the Washington elected stepped in to make things right. Our very own congressperson, Peter Welch has intervened and, for now, it appears as though the FDA will not be enforcing its No Wood in the Aging of Cheese regulations (one would not be surprised to find they run to several hundred pages. ) Not now, anyway.

Mr. Welch has been taking victory laps and risks straining a wrist from patting himself so energetically on the back. And, in truth, it is good to see him standing up for the common people and against their main oppressor, which is not Wall Street but Washington. And, perhaps, the plaudits and attaboys he is receiving - from himself and others - will prove so intoxicating that he might go back to Washington and begin looking for other dragons to slay. Once he has finished with the FDA, he might start looking into the EPA. And then the VA. And then - well, time and space are short and the divisions of the government are legion. Defending the right of a free people to make cheese the way that it has been done for centuries is a small first step. But that, it seems, is what it has come to.

Geoffrey Norman is a writer who lives in Dorset. This opinion piece was originally published in The Caledonian Record, and is reprinted here with their permission.


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