By Lucas Witman
Cheese loving consumers and cheese retailers alike are up in arms about a recent move made by the Food and Drug Administration to block imports of French cheese, mimolette. News of the possible crackdown came after American and French media learned that a 1,100-pound shipment of the cheese had been refused entry into the country when FDA inspectors in New Jersey found unacceptable levels of microscopic cheese mites on the product. Today, the future of mimolette in the United States is uncertain, as FDA rules may prohibit future imports of authentic French-made mimolette into the country.
Mimolette, traditionally made in Lille, France, is a hard cheese with a distinctive bright orange color and a mottled gray rind. Sometimes compared to a Dutch Edam or aged Gouda, this cow’s milk cheese is prized for its nutty flavor and chewy texture.
Mimolette is also distinctive for the way it is ripened: through the intentional introduction of cheese mites, which add flavor to the cheese while eating away at the wheel’s exterior. It is these mites that are at the center of the ongoing controversy surrounding mimolette.
The FDA has set the acceptable limit for cheese mites at six mites per square inch. The agency believes that a higher concentration of these microscopic organisms on cheese can negatively impact the health of those with certain allergies. The agency, however, denies explicitly blocking the importation of mimolette cheese. It states that it is merely enforcing existing food safety standards and conducting routine surveillance sampling.
“Technically there is no ban,” said Benoit de Vitton, North American Representative for Isigny Sainte Mère. “[The FDA] will tell you there is no ban, but there is a ban.” Isigny is a major French producer of mimolette cheese that is imported into the United States. According to de Vitton, by prohibiting the importation and sale of cheeses with a certain concentration of cheese mites, the FDA is effectively banning all mimolette imports, as this cheese requires these mites as a necessary element of its production.
“We bring the product to this country. We have to respect the rules,” said de Vitton. “We’ll do our best, but it is very difficult.”
With the exception of some die-hard mimolette connoisseurs, most consumers and retailers are likely to be little affected by a ban on one relatively obscure variety of French cheese. However, de Vitton is quick to point out that the FDA’s stance on mimolette has potential market implications reaching far beyond this one cheese. “There are a lot of other cheeses that are affected,” said de Vitton. “It’s going to be a threat to a lot of other cheeses that are aged.” This is because cheese mites call not only mimolette, but a wide variety of hard cheeses produced both in France and here in the United States, home.
“American cheese makers will tell you that of course they have mites too,” said de Vitton. “Any type of aged cheese will have mites.” He worries that a crackdown on one cheese could snowball into a wider cheese industry sweep.
When asked whether he believes that the FDA has a legitimate reason to be concerned with the concentration of cheese mites on mimolette or other hard cheeses, de Vitton responded definitively: “Absolutely not.” He thinks that the U.S. government is simply overreacting to a benign if somewhat unsettling organism that everyone inevitably comes into contact with each and everyday.
“It’s really sad,” said de Vitton. “You can eat [fast food burgers], and it’s going to make you sick five minutes after eating it. People eat these things all the time.” He argues that it is extremely unlikely that mimolette cheese offers much of a health threat to the public, especially as the mites live on the cheese’s inedible rind. “For two people who maybe could eventually get sick—It’s a hyper precaution,” he said.
The question remains whether mimolette will return to U.S. cheese cases in some form or another, or whether U.S. consumers will have to travel across the Atlantic for a taste of the cheese. “Mimolette and how it’s made today—you won’t see it,” said de Vitton. “For sure you won’t find mimolette with the rind ever again in the U.S.” He said that some cheese producers may attempt to wash the rind to eliminate the mites or to import the cheese without its rind, but this will mean that U.S. consumers will not have access to the cheese in its authentic form.
Asked whether he thinks there is a chance that the FDA might relax its six-mites-per-square-inch restriction, de Vitton predicts that there will be a change in these standards, but it will not benefit his industry. “Now it’s six mites per square inch. It’s going to be zero,” he said.
Meanwhile cheese hungry consumers in this country are not taking the FDA’s implicit mimolette ban in stride, with some taking to the streets to express both their disapproval with the agency and their passion for the dairy delicacy. At one recent event in New York City, protestors dressed in orange shirts, hats and sunglasses worked to educate passersby about the cheese, passing out free samples and spreading information about the ban.
The most important message the protestors at the event had for interested consumers, both those with a longtime affinity for mimolette and those who are new to the product, is to get it while you can. With many U.S. cheese retailers going through the last of their stocks it is unclear if and when they will be able to get more. Therefore, if you see mimolette at your local shop, now is the time to grab it.
For de Vitton, it is important that consumers and cheese retailers continue to stay abreast of the FDA’s changing food safety standards when it comes to cheese, as you never know when a product you love and rely on may be taken off the shelves: “It’s mimolette today. It’s going to be something else next time.”