The future of artisan cheese making may be plastic. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has ruled that wooden boards are unsanitary after visiting several New York cheesemakers earlier this year.

Typically, individual states are left to do inspections at cheese plants, and there were no previous reports about a state banning the practice. The change – which FDA calls a “clarification” of a previous rule that has been on the books – extends beyond U.S. borders and would also limit the number of imported artisan cheeses coming into the country, since so many European brands age on wood.

The Wisconsin State Journal reported that FDA reports in 2010 and 2011 stated that listeria monocytogenes could survive on wooden boards even after cleaning and sanitizing. But the University of Wisconsin – Madison’s Center for Dairy Research published a report in 2013 that disagreed with the findings.

Artisan cheesemakers use wood for its taste-enhancing properties, and ease of use and replacement. The alternative is more expensive plastic or stainless steel material, also in use by some U.S. cheesemakers.

An excerpt of FDA’s response is below, as stated in an American Cheese Society member alert:

"Microbial pathogens can be controlled if food facilities engage in good manufacturing practice. Proper cleaning and sanitation of equipment and facilities are absolutely necessary to ensure that pathogens do not find niches to reside and proliferate. Adequate cleaning and sanitation procedures are particularly important in facilities where persistent strains of pathogenic microorganisms like Listeria monocytogenes could be found. 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."

Sources: Wisconsin State Journal, American Cheese Society member alert