Attention, peasants: Feds will allow you to consume decent beer and cheese after all

This week, economic freedom found unlikely allies when the regulatory state decided to go after aged, artisan cheese. In a capricious “clarification” of existing law with sweeping consequences, the Food and Drug Administration informed the country that the formerly acceptable practice of aging cheeses on wooden boards had officially become verboten. The announcement also suggested even foreign cheeses aged on boards might be in danger.

Those who enjoy artisan cheese— a group populated disproportionately by those who normally encourage the regulatory state at every turn— were dismayed. Small business people and cheese enthusiasts were fearful, with good reason, as cheese blog Cheese Underground explained:

Many of the most awarded and well-respected American artisan cheeses are currently aged on wooden boards. American Cheese Society triple Best in Show winner Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Uplands Cheese in Wisconsin is cured on wooden boards. Likewise for award-winners Cabot Clothbound in Vermont, current U.S. Champion cheese Marieke Gouda, and 2013 Best in Show Runner-Up Bleu Mont Bandaged Cheddar.

Wisconsin cheesemaker Chris Roelli says the FDA’s “clarified” stance on using wooden boards is a “potentially devastating development” for American cheesemakers. He and his family have spent the past eight years re-building Roelli Cheese into a next-generation American artisanal cheese factory. Just last year, he built what most would consider to be a state-of-the-art aging facility into the hillside behind his cheese plant. And Roelli, like hundreds of American artisanal cheesemaekrs, has developed his cheese recipes specifically to be aged on wooden boards.

“The very pillar that we built our niche business on is the ability to age our cheese on wood planks, an art that has been practiced in Europe for thousands of years,” Roelli says. Not allowing American cheesemakers to use this practice puts them “at a global disadvantage because the flavor produced by aging on wood can not be duplicated. This is a major game changer for the dairy industry in Wisconsin, and many other states.”

The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 is the culprit, here, administered as all these things are by bureaucrats with no, ahem, cheddar of their own on the line when they make such pronouncements. It gives Americans yet another reason to be wary of any legislation described as “sweeping.”

“Food safety is something I take seriously, not just as your president but as a parent,” President Obama said as he launched his pitch for a food-safety regulation overhaul, bravely defeating yet another straw man in the process.

The law gave the FDA “broad new powers,” the Washington Post reported at the time. Do not fear unintended consequences or overreach, little people.

“It’s a big leap forward in applying modern, preventive measures across the whole food supply,” Michael R. Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, said in an interview. “It’s important to see these rules as setting the standards for food safety.”

The FDA backed off its cheese ruling Wednesday after an uproar from urbane cheese-eaters and freedom lovers alike. Even Vox went Galt on this one, helpfully explaining to the rest of us the downside of overzealous regulation. Thanks, guys! The federal agency released a statement that basically says, “Fine, we’ll allow you to do this for now, but we reserve the right to change our minds.”

“The agency’s regulations do not specifically address the use of shelving made of wood in cheesemaking, 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.

“At issue is a January 2014 communication from the agency’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition to the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets’ Division of Milk Control and Dairy Services, which was sent in response to questions from New York State.

“The FDA recognizes that this communication has prompted concerns in the artisanal cheesemaking community. The communication was not intended as an official policy statement, but was provided as background information on the use of wooden shelving for aging cheeses and as an analysis of related scientific publications.

“The FDA will engage with the artisanal cheesemaking community, state officials and others to learn more about current practices and discuss the safety of aging certain types of cheeses on wooden shelving, as well as to invite stakeholders to share any data or evidence they have gathered related to safety and the use of wood surfaces. We welcome this open dialogue.

Andrew Coulson of Cato translates:

FDA: Oh. What? Did you think we meant we were going to regulate your much loved, centuries-old practices out of existence just because we’re a regulatory agency that stops people from doing things for a living? Of course we’re not doing that… right now… while the media spotlight is so bright it’s hurting our eyes… but you’d better convince us we should allow you to do that anyway…

But as Cato’s Walter Olson explains, this apparent victory for sanity and liberty may simply be due to the fact that the usual advocates of regulatory encroachment in every aspect of our lives happened to have been personally inconvenienced this time around, and may have had the subject-area knowledge to realize how ridiculous this encroachment was. So, for once, they pushed back instead of rooting for leviathan.

Perhaps they’ll learn a broader lesson. Hey, what? Stop laughing.

In other news, the FDA is also dispensing with the 70-day review process to which it had formerly subjected any new craft beer formula. Because Lord knows you can’t be putting chocolate in a porter or lemon in a shandy without informing the federal government:

Federal officials have simplified parts of the approval process for bringing new beers to market, something that in the past could take months. The changes mean consumers could see new brews showing up in stores and bars more quickly, while brewers will enjoy greater flexibility to experiment with ingredients and production techniques.

“It’s great news in terms of streamlining for the brewer,” says Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association, a Colorado-based trade group for the majority of the 2,800 brewing companies in the United States. “It does give (brewers) greater freedom and chances are beer drinkers will have more options of beers available to them.”

The rule change, announced last week by the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, greenlights the use of more than 30 ingredients — including honey, certain fruits, spices and coffee — in beer recipes without getting formula approval. It also says producers no longer need prior approval to age beer in barrels previously used to store wine and distilled spirits, a popular trend among the growing craft beer market.

Formula approvals from the agency have averaged about 70 days and are needed before brewers get their labels approved, which in itself can take more than 15 days, according to the agency.

So, enjoy your access to this vast array of fed-approved ingredients, American citizens! And lift a glass to this great, free nation where the government keeps an ever-shortening list of things you’re allowed to do instead of a short list of things you’re prohibited from doing.

In other good news, fat is okay again. Sorry about the 30-year misinformation campaign, everyone! Enjoy your obesity!


Save the cheese!
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