An FDA crackdown on the import of the French cheese mimolette has foodies crying foul, prompting one group to hold a protest in New York City over the weekend, and the Whole Foods global cheese buyer to warn fans “Grab it if you see it! We don’t know how long it will be gone.”
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About 40 protesters in Greenwich Village, many dressed in orange to pay homage to the hue of the cheese, handed out bite-sized samples to folks on the street in order to raise awareness. One woman, from Texas, took part in the action with her husband and their daughter. She told The Local, "I want to support mimolette. We adore mimolette."
The Whole Foods buyer, Cathy Stranger, meanwhile, told Yahoo! Shine, “I think it’s an unfortunate situation. The product has been made for centuries, and imported into the U.S. probably since they began allowing imports.”
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Still, the FDA has held up more than 1,100 pounds of the cheese, worth upwards of $13,000, in a New Jersey warehouse since March. That’s according to Benoit de Vitton, the North American representative for France’s Isigny Ste Mére, which is the main producer of mimolette.
“Isigny has been bringing mimolette in on a weekly basis for 20 years without an issue, ever,” he told Shine. But in March, he was alerted by importers that the cheese was being put on “FDA hold,” meaning it could not be moved from its arrival warehouse until further inspection. After that, he said, the cheese received the more damning label of “detained,” meaning it could not be sold in the U.S.
The reason given, according to FDA paperwork read to Shine by de Vitton, was that the inspectors found cheese mites in the rind, which can cause allergies, and which made the product “adulterated,” and consists of a “decomposed substance otherwise unfit for food.” (Mites, related to ticks, are tiny arthropods.) But using the microscopic cheese mites, de Vitton explained, is a vital part of the ripening process for the unique mimolette—which is “sweet,” with a “caramelized depth and smooth, fudgy finish,” according to the website for Murray’s Cheese Shop in New York, where the product was still available for purchase (for $33.99 a pound) on Tuesday.
The cheese’s detention, de Vitton explained, leaves the company with three options: make it FDA compliant, send it back to France, or destroy the product completely. Destroying the cheese would be heartbreaking, he said, but sending it back has been difficult, since doing so requires special documentation from the FDA, which de Vitton says the agency has not provided.
The FDA did not respond to specific questions about the situation, but released the following statement to Shine:
The FDA does not have any information about specific import refusals, but we can tell you that, in general, there is no ban on importing mimolette cheese into the U.S. However, it is important to note that all food products exported to the U.S. must meet U.S. food standards. We do surveillance sampling of imports; when we find a violation of U.S. law, we may take action to refuse the product's entry into the U.S.
Strange’s take on the situation is that the FDA seems to be on high alert, perhaps because cheese is considered a class 1 hazard. The mimolette, she believes, “got swept up into high-level examinations, and there have been a number of items over the years that have.” But, she added, “It seems like it’s happening more with French products.”
That’s been particularly unnerving to folks like Cécile Delarue, a French television journalist based in Los Angeles whose blog “French and Parfait” celebrates French cuisine and culture. “I am sad, to think that this great country I’ve been living in for three years now, doesn’t want to open its door anymore to this little French culture specimen,” she writes.
Delarue told Shine, “It’s like forbidding strawberries because some people are allergic to strawberries.” Mimolette, she explained, is a cheese "everyone [in France] has in his fridge. It’s not a stinky cheese, it’s more delicate, almost like a very good cheddar.”
Strange is also a big fan. “It’s one of my most favorite cheeses,” she said. “It looks like a cantaloupe. It has a very unique, dynamic flavor.”
As far as the mites, she explained, “Almost any cloth-based cheese will have mites, it will draw these mites, which eat the outside which lets it breathe and mature properly.” But, with mimolette, “It’s treated to kill the mites before it’s shipped out of France,” so the FDA must have been looking very hard for the remaining microscopic creatures.
While Strange does believe the FDA has the public’s well-being at heart, she also has faith in Isigny Ste Mére and its processing of mimolette. “I’ve been to the facility,” she said. “I’ve seen it being made, and it’s one of the most wonderful things I’ve seen in my cheese world.”
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