Its the Great Cheese Mite Mystery.
For centuries, microscopic mites have been part of the process for making Mimolette, a mild-tasting cheese shaped like a cannonball and electric orange in color. For decades, the cheese has been imported from France and distributed to shops and grocery stores across the United States.
That is, until this spring, when the Food and Drug Administration began blocking shipments of the Gouda-like product at U.S. ports, leaving thousands of pounds of it stranded in warehouses from New Jersey to California.
The FDA says inspectors found too many cheese mites per square inch crawling on the cantaloupe-like rinds of Mimolette, raising health concerns.
But the agency hasnt explained exactly why it began holding up the cheese shipments after decades of relatively few problems. The only thing we can do is cite our regulations, which show very clearly that our job is to protect the food supply, FDA spokeswoman Patricia El-Hinnawy said.
The move has provoked outrage among the small-but-fervent band of Mimolette fans, who call the blockage unwarranted and are fretting about what it means for the fate of other cheeses that rely on mites as part of the aging process.
Its completely natural. You have bugs on every single cheese you leave in the open air, said Benoit de Vitton, North American representative for Isigny Sainte-Mere, a top exporter of Mimolette in Normandy. You cant have Mimolette without cheese mites. It wouldnt be Mimolette.
The protests, which have occurred on both sides of the Atlantic, include a recent Facebook campaign by Jill Erber, who with her husband runs Cheesetique shops in Alexandria and Arlington, Va.
Alert! In case youre unaware, the FDA has cut off supplies of Mimolette, a beloved French hard-aged cheese, as it feels that the microscopic mites on the rind (essential for creating the cheeses unique flavor) might cause an allergic reaction, Erber wrote on Cheesetiques Facebook page this month.
In protest – and in honor of Mimolette, which has been made the same way since King Louis XIV declared it the National Cheese of France, Cheesetique is giving away Mimolette for free. All you have to do is post a photo of yourself frowning pathetically on our Facebook page.
She added, Mimolette is running out all over the country so this give-away is just while supplies last.
Scores of gloomy-faced photos began rolling in, from as far as San Francisco and Switzerland. A man and his parrot stared sullenly at the camera. A little girl pouted. A bride holding a bouquet looked indignant.
Drat those FDA bureaucrats – they obviously have never tasted the subtle magnificence of this cheese, one Mimolette devotee wrote beside her picture.
Mites are people, too, wrote another.
Sacre Bleu! wrote another.
The cheese-mite tempest began in March, when the FDA stopped a shipment of Mimolette from Isigny, citing the product as filthy, putrid and unfit for consumption.
Subsequent shipments also got held up, de Vitton said, and the company soon halted shipments to the United States. The roughly 3,300 of pounds of Mimolette detained in America cannot be distributed until the FDA gives approval, de Vitton said, adding that its impractical to send the cheese back to France, and it will probably have to be destroyed.
Its a big hit for the company, he said. Obviously, I think its unfair. . . . I absolutely want to sell it again in the United States, but the last thing you want is to be fighting with the FDA.
De Vitton said mites accumulate on the outside of Mimolette during the months it is stored in caves to age. Before shipping, workers brush off the rinds and spray them with compressed air to get rid of most of the mites.
But if you have just one or two mites on the rind, they will reproduce during transportation, de Vitton said, adding, No one eats the rind.
FDA records show that other shipments of Mimolette from companies other than Isigny have been detained recently. Agency officials say there is no official ban, nor have they issued import alerts that would prevent shipments from coming into the country, as long as they meet safety standards.