The FDA‘s Mike Taylor participated in a lunchtime discussion with cheesemakers, retailers, industry experts and other members of the American Cheese Society today, during the Society’s 31st annual conference in Sacramento, Calif. Taylor, the FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine, was accompanied by six other FDA members, including Mike Landa, Director of the FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition; and Nega Beru, Director of the Office of Food Safety.
In a short address to a packed room, Taylor acknowledged that the FDA had recently mishandled communication over its policies toward aging cheeses on wooden shelves. News that the FDA had banned the traditional practice of wooden board aging broke in June, causing an uproar among cheesemakers and turophiles around the country, who saw their livelihoods suddenly thrust into limbo. A few days later, however, the FDA released a statement clarifying that there was no new policy regarding aging on wooden boards.
The visit today was sparked in part by the FDA’s desire to further clarify its position on wooden boards and begin a larger dialogue with the American cheesemaking community.
“We don’t have a policy banning wooden shelves,” Taylor said. “We’ve never taken action in a facility on the basis of the use of [wooden] shelves.” Later, in a private briefing for the media, he added, “traditional products have been around a long time; they don’t stay around a long time if they make a bunch of people sick.”
Speaking during the lunchtime meeting, Taylor also discussed broader concerns over the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and acknowledged that there were still many issues upon which the FDA continues to reevaluate its stance and would welcome ACS member input, including policies concerning aging raw-milk cheeses and testing for non-toxigenic e. coli. Taylor said the FDA plans to collaborate more closely with the ACS, particularly as the two parties jointly develop new “best practices” guidelines for cheesemakers. This working relationship could take the multiple forms, Taylor said, including meetings in Washington, FDA out-of-town visits with cheesemakers, and regular exchange of data and information between high-level leaders of both groups. The seven FDA leaders met privately yesterday with ACS leadership, a dialogue Taylor called “enormously valuable and meaningful.”
Following his talk, Taylor answered about a dozen ACS member-submitted questions (the FDA has also promised to answer additional questions that were not addressed today; they will appear in future issues of the ACS’s email newsletter, Cheese Bytes). On some points, including questions regarding product labeling and scientific testing data, Taylor was unable to provide direct answers, stressing that his role is policy-focused. He often returned to the FDA’s desire to gain understanding of the cheese industry and cheesemaking.
“One of our messages is we want to be educated by this community… so that we can work better with it,” he said. “I’d rather we didn’t have the miscommunication [regarding wooden board aging], but it’s terrific that it’s gotten us here.”