When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration blocked the importation of an unusual orange-colored French cheese at customs earlier this year, it didn’t mince words. “The article appears to consist in whole or in part of a filthy, putrid, or decomposed substance,” noted the official report form. And at first it didn’t even mention the tens of thousands of microscopic mites gobbling the rind, making the outside of the cheese look like the craters on the moon.
Indeed, mimolette, as this cheese is called, is one of the many French culinary delights that you probably don’t want to look at too closely. This is, after all, the country of sautéed snails, force-fed geese, garlicky frog legs and horse tartare. We eat them, we love them, we don’t think so much about them. Whether Americans will develop the taste for mimolette that they have for foie gras and escargots remains something of an open question. The younger version of mimolette is akin to Dutch Gouda in flavor; the older kind of this fromage, with the pitted carapace, is a harder cheese with a sharper flavor and a musty, chewy quality, especially when you get to the part the mites have been munching.
But it’s not really the connoisseurs in the United States who have been outraged by the de facto ban on mimolette—it’s the libertarians. They see the FDA decision as one more imposition on their lives and choices by the omnipresent nanny state. In June, Reason.com, one of the most, well, reasonable libertarian sites, posted an article coauthored by Nick Gillespie (also a contributor to The Daily Beast) headlined “Cheese Lovers Fight Idiotic FDA Ban on Mimolette Cheese!” The post included a video interview with Jill Erber, the owner of the Cheesetique shops and wine bars in Arlington, Virginia. A related blog item called her “Reason’s favorite chessemonger [sic],” since she was also interviewed in 2009, when the lame-duck George W. Bush administration threatened to slap a 300 percent tariff on France’s Roquefort cheese because of a trade dispute with the European Union.
“Food is one of the products for which it’s easy to say less regulation is better,” Erber declared. “The research is out there, let people look into what they want to eat. If they’re concerned about the safety of a particular food, they shouldn’t consume it.”
Really? If government isn’t checking your food for safety, who will? Most people don’t have the resources to measure the amount of bacteria in their hamburgers, or, for that matter, the time to count the mites on their mimolette. But we take Erber’s point. In the case of this cheese, there’s no reason the public or the government should care. There’s no record of a significant health threat – or any health threat – from mimolette.
What’s been put in place by the Federal government is not exactly a ban, just a regulation that has the same effect. The FDA allows a few mites to be present on a cheese, but suggests that too many mites might provoke allergic reactions. Of course, if avoiding all theoretical allergy risks is the standard for approval, then there’s not going to be much food worth eating left on the shelves.
France has been exporting mimolette to the United States for “more than 20 years,” says Jerôme Goulard, who is in charge of marketing and communication for the Normandy cheese cooperative Isigny Sainte-Mère. No allergy case has been reported, and no other medical situation due to the use of mites has been revealed. “Mimolette has been made this way for over three centuries and there was never a problem with it; in fact there is no actual problem now,” says Goulard. And the mites are integral to the process.
The cheese is held in a cellar for six weeks; during which time it forms mold on its surface. Then it is placed in a second cellar for six, 12, or 18 months. During that time, the “young” mimolettes are in direct contact with older ones on which mites have already been at work.
At Isigny Sainte-Mère, the mites were first introduced in the cellar over 70 years ago. Staffers monitor humidity and temperature; but otherwise the cheeses are left undisturbed. The mites present on “old” mimolettes colonize the young ones and eat into the roots of the mold to produce the crust which protects the cheese during the maturing process; this also gives it its specific flavor by aerating the cheese in this very special, very gentle way.
These itty-bitty bugs are cream white and are virtually invisible to the naked eye, although thousands of them together may give the impression of dust. What the FDA has declared is that only food with fewer than six of the critters per square inch will be allowed. That number couldn’t begin to do the job, and no matter how much the producer tries to blow them off, there will always be more than the amount allowed. Take away all the little worker bugs, and mimolette would just stop being mimolette. Not the greatest tragedy in the world, perhaps, but a mite sad.