The Food and Drug Administration is currently embroiled in a surprisingly heated culinary standoff — pitting French cheese-makers (and American cheese-lovers) against regulators, all because of one very small problem: cheese mites.
Cheese mites are microscopic little bugs that live on the surfaces of aged cheeses, munching the microscopic molds that grow there. For many aged cheeses, they're something of an industry nuisance, gently brushed off the cheeses. But for Mimolette, a bright orange French cheese, they're actually encouraged.
The mites munch on the rind for a few years and then are removed — usually with a blast of compressed air and a bit of hand-brushing — before Mimolette is sold. But there are always a few hiding behind. And now the FDA is cracking down.
According to the FDA's Patricia El-Hinnawy, there's no official limit, but the target is no more than six mites per square inch. For Mimolette, that's a near impossible standard.
Benoit de Vitton is the North American representative for Isigny, one of the largest producers of Mimolette. In March, de Vitton began receiving letters from each of the dozen importers he works with, saying that their Mimolette shipments had been detained.
De Vitton estimates that he now has about a ton of cheese sitting in FDA warehouses in New Jersey. "They say the product, because of the mites, it is not proper for human consumption," de Vitton sighs.
Ironically, de Vitton notes that Mimolette itself is rumored to have been created because of import issues in the 17th century. "The French were at war with Holland, and the king didn't want any more Dutch Gouda coming to France. So he asked to create kind of the same cheese."
But in the 21st century, do we need a cheese ban? Microbiologist Rachel Dutton runs a cheese lab at Harvard University, and we checked in with her about the dangers of mites. Dutton notes that there have been some reports of mite allergies, but they seem to be restricted to people who have come into contact with large numbers of mites.
And Dutton says that while we may not like to think about bugs, they're a part of what makes cheese so delicious.
"Cheese is absolutely alive," Dutton laughs. And all of that life — the molds, bacteria, yeasts and mites — help make cheese what it is. Dutton says that the mites on Mimolette can contribute flavors of their own (they have a somewhat earthy smell), and by eating into the rind, they can also increase aeration — and the surface area in which the other microbes can do their work.
Dutton understands that this doesn't sound appealing, but implores people to realize the good work of these bugs. "There definitely are microbes that can spoil food and make either it bad for you to eat or just sort of gross. But any time you eat a piece of cheese or a bite of yogurt, have a piece of bread or a glass of wine — these are all examples of foods fermented by different types of microbes."
In America, the response is a bit more subdued. Some cheesemongers are buying up the limited supply, but most are content to shrug it off. Sasha Davies, of Cyril's cheese/wine bar in Portland, is nervous about what the mite crackdown could mean for other aged cheeses, but in general is fine reaching for an aged Gouda instead of Mimolette.
"I find I can scratch the itch I feel for Mimolette with a lot of other cheeses," she admits.
Davies says that the fervor for Mimolette isn't just about its caramel notes or lactic tang or bright orange color.
"There are cheeses that — even though I think they taste delicious, they tug at my heartstrings, either because I love the person that makes them, or I have this great memory of being in a special place," she says. "Food is never really just food."
And for many French people, Mimolette brings a taste of memory, family and home — as well as mites.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Finally to the Food and Drug Administration, which is embroiled in a surprisingly heated culinary standoff over French cheese. Regulators say that Mimolette, an orange cheese that looks kind of like a small cantaloupe, cannot be imported because it contains too many cheese mites. But as Dina Prichep reports, the mites are what makes the cheese Mimolette.
DINA PRICHEP, BYLINE: Benoit de Vitton is the North American representative for Isigny, a major French cheesemaker. And since March, all of his Mimolette shipments - about a ton of cheese - have been held up because of one small problem - one very small problem.
BENOIT DE VITTON: Well, if you look, like here, all you see, like the dust. That's cheese mites.
PRICHEP: Cheese mites, which de Vitton is scraping off the rind of Mimolette, are microscopic bugs. They're mostly a mild industry nuisance that are brushed off aged cheeses. But for Mimolette, they're actually encouraged.
VITTON: The Mimolette has been made this way since the 17th century, with the cheese mite eating the rind. They really affect on the nuttiness of the taste.
PRICHEP: When the cheese is done aging, the mites are removed. But there are always some left behind. And now the FDA is cracking down. They don't want to see more than six mites per square inch, which for Mimolette is an impossible standard.
VITTON: They say the product because of the mites is not proper for human consumption. What we think is, like, it's been 20 years without an issue. And also we have absolutely no proof that the mites are bad for you.
RACHEL DUTTON: There have been documented cases of some types of allergic reactions.
PRICHEP: Rachel Dutton is a microbiologist at Harvard University, where she runs a cheese lab.
DUTTON: But it's only been found, as far as I can tell, in people who actually work with large numbers of these mite populations.
PRICHEP: While we might not like to think about bugs on our foods - bacteria, yeasts, molds and cheese mites - Dutton says that we really do depend on them.
DUTTON: There definitely are microbes that can spoil food and make either it bad for you to eat or just sort of gross. But anytime you eat a piece of cheese or a bite of yogurt, have a piece of bread or a glass of wine, these are all examples of foods fermented by different types of microbes.
PRICHEP: And these microbes are everywhere. Cheese lovers are worried about what the FDA limit could mean for other aged cheeses, which almost all have some mites. But if it's just Mimolette, is it really a big deal? Well, it definitely is to the French. They aren't rioting in the streets yet, but there are stories on French radio and television, and YouTube videos where other French cheeses come together in support of their fallen compatriot.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in French)
PRICHEP: But for the rest of us? Like many Americans, Portland cheesemonger Sasha Davies has no problem, say, reaching for a slice of gouda instead.
SASHA DAVIES: I can find other cheeses that touch on different flavor notes that I miss about an aged Mimolette.
PRICHEP: But Davies knows it's really not about the caramelly notes or lactic tang or even mites.
DAVIES: There are cheeses that, you know, even though I think they taste delicious, they tug at my heartstrings, either because I love the person who makes them, or I have this great memory of being in a special place. Food is never really just food.
PRICHEP: And for those who grew up in Northern France, like cheese rep Benoit de Vitton, Mimolette is one of those foods that has an emotional pull. You can hear it as he unpacks his final shipment.
(SOUNDBITE OF ZIPPING)
VITTON: That's going to be my last Mimolette until I go back to France. Ah, rest in peace.
PRICHEP: De Vitton is still trying to figure out what to do with his detained cheese and what to do in the future. But for now, he's savoring one last taste of Mimolette. For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHEESE ALARM")
ROBYN HITCHCOCK: (Singing) Oh please, somebody ring the cheese alarm. Oh please, somebody ring the cheese alarm. 'Cause cheese...
SIMON: Robyn Hitchcock. And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.