The Corporate Agenda Behind FDA’s 10-Year Assault on Artisanal Cheese

The mainstream media has been full of handwringing that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration seemed a few days ago to be banning the centuries-old practice of aging cheese on wood boards.

A Forbe magazine writer said the decision “has rattled hundreds of small businesses across the United States.  Consumers who eat any kind of aged cheese should prepare for a potentially catastrophic disruption in the market for artisan, non-processed cheese.”


The writer suggested this was a big-business/small-business issue: “Corporate cheese makers like Leprino and Kraft will be able to weather this regulatory storm — they don’t make cheese, they manufacture cheese, and as such they do not follow the centuries old artisan techniques.”


Then, just as quickly as news about a ban on wood boards spread, came word of change, that the FDA was open to hearing about whether wood might be safely used. On its Facebook page, the FDA said it had "historically" been concerned about the safety of wood, but that the wood boards were okay…..for now. 


The New York Times’ editorial page editors sniffily assessed that they knew better than anyone else what had happened at the FDA: “Naturally, conservatives and libertarians see this move as yet another assault on liberty by the Obama administration. It’s not. It’s a dumb mistake by the F.D.A., not a metaphor for overreach…” 


Let’s get one thing out of the way before I explain what’s going on here: The only reason this whole story got so much play in the mainstream media is that no one used the magic words, “raw milk.” This was cast as a problem for “artisanal cheese producers.” Lots of mainstream media reporters and editors love their artisanal cheeses, often selling at $20-plus a pound, as much as the next stiff. They forget that a big chunk of “artisanal” cheese is raw milk cheese; had this wood problem been presented as a problem of “raw milk cheese,” then the mainstream media would have ignored it because they buy into the FDA-CDC argument that raw milk is inherently unsafe (ignoring the reality that they are consuming raw milk via cheeses, without any ill effects)


Okay, what was really happening here? It’s essential to understand that the initial announcement of a ban on wood boards isn't some kind of one-shot deal, a screwup by a misinformed bureaucrat. No, it’s the exact opposite. 


The wood board dustup is just the latest chapter in a ten-year war the FDA has been waging against the booming artisanal cheese/raw milk cheese market. (The American Cheese Society, which has more than 300 artisanal cheese maker members, has said about half make raw milk cheese.)  


The war started in 2004, shortly after the arrival of John Sheehan as head of the FDA’s Division of Plant and Dairy Food Safety. He had arrived from corporate cheese manufacturer Leprino (noted in the Forbes article, above).  Sheehan telegraphed his FDA agenda with an article in Food Safety Magazine


Sheehan declared in the 2004 Food Safety Magazine article that the FDA’s 55-year practice of allowing the production and sale of raw milk cheese was a safety hazard.  He announced “the finding that 60-day aging is largely ineffectual as a means of reducing levels of certain pathogens in cheeses. With this information in hand, FDA is now developing a risk profile for raw milk cheeses, which will aid in the Agency’s assessment of the requirements for processing these cheeses.”


Nobody at the time took much note of Sheehan’s radical assessment that an FDA regulation that had been working fine for more than fifty years was suddenly a threat to public health. But since then, Sheehan has followed through on his conviction that artisanal cheese/raw milk cheese is unsafe. 


Back in 2010, the American Cheese Society and its artisanal cheese maker members reported that more than 100 of the members (three-fourths of those who responded to a survey) had been inspected by the FDA that year—many times the normal 3 to 8 per cent inspected. The FDA found very few safety problems, the members reported. 


Then, early last year, the FDA came out with a study declaring that soft raw milk cheeses were 60 to 150 times more dangerous than pasteurized cheeses….despite the absence of a single illness from the raw cheeses in 23 years. 


Finally, late last year, the FDA informed the American Cheese Society that it planned an intensive pilot testing program of artisanal and raw milk cheese over the coming year. 


Throughout all these probes and studies and threats and inspections by the FDA against artisanal cheese, the agency has yet to come out with any changes in its rules….until this week, when it suddenly seemed to ban wood boards for aging cheese. The outcry was such that the FDA quickly pulled back. 


Of course, that’s not the end of the war on artisanal cheese. The wood boards initiative was just another probe, another test. It’s just the latest assault in a ten-year war. But absolutely not the last. 


You see, as Forbes suggested, the FDA’s war against artisanal cheeses is part of a push by corporate cheese manufacturers to eliminate ever-more-serious competition from the upstarts. Sheehan's background in the corporate cheese world makes him the perfect general to be waging this war. 

Sheehan’s big problem is that he has been unable, over ten years of effort, to demonstrate that artisanal/raw milk cheeses are unsafe. Whatever his opinions, he needs a safety agenda, and he just hasn’t been able to come up with it…..yet. 

Sylvia Gibson's picture

"You see, as Forbes suggested, the FDA’s war against artisanal cheeses is part of a push by corporate cheese manufacturers to eliminate ever-more-serious competition from the upstarts. "

And these corporate manufacturers are pushing to eliminate the small raw dairies, small coffee roasters, small chocolatiers, etc. Seems a massive push to eliminate all the small producers and there will be no competition.

I cannot imagine buying "cheese foods" or Parmesan in a shaker can. <shudder>

David Gumpert's picture

Sylvia, that is not too far from the truth. The food industry is an oligopoly in many areas, including dairy, meats, and breakfast cereals. There are others, as you indicate. Oligopolies don't know how to compete, so they depend on government influence and hard-ball tactics (like fixing prices) to get their way. 

D. Smith's picture

Sheehan is just biding his time, you're right about that David. He's testing the water. The reason for that is because if he can't have the whole dog, he doesn't ever want to settle for just the tail. That's how it works in the corporate world. All or nothing. Leave no openings, no cracks where something genuine might slip through - it would be his undoing.

I can barely stand to open the home page because the first thing that jumps out is his oafish, drooling face. Ewwww. Hurry up and post another article so it pushes his face down the page!!

David Gumpert's picture

D, I thought long and hard about using Sheehan's photo, yet again. But he seems to be "the main man" in the cheese struggle, especially, given all the expertise he brought with him from corporate America. 

D. Smith's picture

I believe you, really I do. But the sooner you post another article or two, the better. Shove him off the page ASAP . . . (8-\

David Gumpert's picture

Okay, D. You win. In reality, it's an agency agenda, being carried out by many people, under the leadership of Mr. Sheehan. 

Ora Moose's picture

David I may have asked this before but if so don't remember the answer so will ask again:

Is Sheehan an elected or appointed figure? Who does he really work for, and I don't mean the corporate interests, I mean the person that put him in place and tells him what policies to set and follow. Please enlighten us, but I understand there may be no simple answer. Maybe his policy is dictated by corporate boardroom committee reps.

Sylvia Gibson's picture

Doesn't Ireland ban all raw milk? That appears to be where he got his BS from. The fda web site was not user friendly for finding any information on anyone's qualifications or who is who within their company. The last link appears to be a "new" director, a lawyer in the position.

Sylvia Gibson's picture

Apparently it is an appointed position not to be confused with anointed position...

Bee-less honey? OMG

D. Smith's picture

@ Sylvia: Good one! Comrades in arms, so to speak.

As to the second link, WHY oh WHY do "organic" companies do stuff like this?? They are just playing the same games as the bigphood doods. I still don't buy stuff in a box I don't care if it's marked organic or whatever. Some of these ideas are real head-scratchers.

David Gumpert's picture

Sheehan is appointed to his position. Now, there are political appointees and civil service appointees. The political appointees are those made by the President to cabinet-level positions, and a few lower levels in each department, like the head of the FDA is a political appointee, serving as part of Dept of Health and Human Services. These political appointees tend to move on once a new administration takes power. Sheehan is apparently a high-level civil service appointee, which explains how he can stay on regardless of which administration in power. 

D. Smith's picture

@ David: Well, really I was just hoping you'd be writing some more stuff for us real soon, thus pushing him down the page.

The fdA will, in all reality, just continue to be a scandalous institution which grows and blossoms into the most toxic of flowers. You know the old saying about always coming out smelling like a rose? Yeah, that will happen for them - always. Too much corporate support for it to ever be any other way. And they certainly aren't alone; in today's world the corporations have more power than the government.

D. Smith's picture

If I had to take a WAG on this subject, I'd say this business about trying to ban/control artisnal cheeses has to do with the fact that they are from raw milk, and after the recent bad press on pasteurized dairy products making people sick the fdA had to do SOMETHING drastic to swing the pendulum. Pasteurized dairy products, all of them, are tasteless in more ways than one. Pun intended.

I've seen no more than the one article I posted from Forbes yesterday about the fdA backing off on their chokehold so we'll have to see where that ends up as more time passes. Since the little "squares" aren't working I can't find the page where I posted that article, but I probably got it in the wrong topic!

Sylvia Gibson's picture

The commenters are very informative, especially one named, Dee..

mfpellicano's picture

David, I'm happy you took Old Sheehan's "mug" down too, it only makes my blood pressure rise seeing
the face! BTW, this mornings paper...front page..."Liver disease's rise worries health officials." "Obesity-related illness seen to be surging across many age groups." They'll relate this to EVERYTHING except GMO's! ALL age groups...fatty liver..."you have to force feed ducks to get fatty liver, but people seem to be able to develop it on their own." Well, of course, it's ALL our fault...not the fact that 99% of our food is mostly made from GMO's + chemical additives, ect. Sorry guys, but these type of nutrition issues have the same effect on me as old Sheehan's pics! Don't worry, I get another cup of green tea...detox the thoughts!

Sylvia Gibson's picture

As much as I detest looking upon that mug, I believe it is always good to know what those who are trying to force their way on others look like. Know thy enemy?

The dictatorship is on the move because people are slowly opening their eyes and speaking out. You can be sure they'll try by whatever means to be the victors.

Shelly-D.'s picture

Am waiting for MrJohn to drop around and pay us a visit. :)

D. Smith's picture

Well, how nice. The feds really are gonna allow us to eat our cheese and drink our beer (the really good stuff, that is) without intervention for a while, anyhow. This article has just enough cutting sarcasm to be great reading. You also have to read between the lines just a tad.

[quote from article]
. . . Michael R. Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine . . .
[end quote]

Oh yum, what an appealing combination.

Nice of you to think of me. However, I live in Canada, have limited understanding of the FDA and might not have much to contribute to this particular discussion. Sorry.