Earlier this month reports emerged that the FDA had detained a U.S.-bound shipment of mimolette, a French cheese.
Mimolette, which has been imported into the U.S. for decades, is beloved and is unusual because its rind contains microscopic cheese mites. The FDA also recently held up a shipment of another such French cheese, Salers.
The FDA's complaints about the cheeses that reached U.S. shores in these cases? That they contain cheese mites.
If this FDA crackdown on a set of rather obscure, mitey artisanal cheeses that conform to traditional standards sounds like a small, targeted regulatory intervention involving cheeses you've never heard of, consider that this agency crackdown is but one small part of the FDA's larger, very concerted international and domestic attack on artisanal cheeses—especially those made with raw milk.
Take a joint U.S.-Canadian government draft report, Quantitative Assessment of the Risk of Listeriosis from Soft-Ripened Cheese Consumption in the United States and Canada, which has cheese buyers and sellers alike scared about the future of artisanal cheese in North America.
Both the U.S. and Canadian governments currently require soft and semi-soft cheeses sold across state (or provincial) borders to be aged for at least 60 days.
The report acknowledges, though, that "cheeses made from raw milk that have not been aged for 60 days" are legal in Canada in the province of Québec. The intrastate sale of raw milk and/or raw milk cheeses is legal in some sense in more than three-dozen states, according to this Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund map.
The report doesn't just touch on raw-milk cheeses. Its focus is laserlike. Indeed, by my count the words "raw" and "unpasteurized" appear more than 230 times in the 175-page report.
Both supporters and opponents of raw-milk cheeses view the report as a giant step toward increased restrictions on artisanal cheeses made with unpasteurized milk.
The International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA), whose members only "use pasteurized milk in cheese production," notes the report will help the FDA in its ongoing "reevaluation of the current 60-day aging requirements for cheese made from raw milk."
The report is a likely "prelude to increased regulations," food law attorney Jason Foscolo, who represents many artisanal food producers, told me in a recent email.
But are increased regulations necessary? Critics of the study, including Foscolo, note the science doesn't support that approach.
Indeed, much of the science contained in the report appears at least as soft as the raw-milk cheeses the report claims may be problematic.
The American Cheese Society, which represents artisanal producers, claims in comments it filed with the FDA that the draft report contains several "inaccurate and misleading" statements that could spur "increased regulatory efforts beyond those justified by empirical evidence."
Jill Erber, who owns Cheesetique, with two locations in Northern Virginia, echoes the ACS comments.
Erber, who Reason magazine's Katherine Mangu-Ward interviewed for a 2009 column on the harm that punitive American cheese tariffs do to U.S. businesses and consumers, read the draft report and notes several shortcomings with the data.
Using that data, she calculated in an email to me that the chances of a person in a high-risk group (e.g., a pregnant woman) being sickened by pasteurized cheese are the same as the likelihood of someone from the general population being sickened by unpasteurized cheese—in both cases a scant 1 in 55 million.
Erber notes that means "1/6 of the entire country could eat camembert at the same time and ONE person would get really sick."
Those microscopic odds are also reflected in real-world numbers.
Erber points out the report notes just "725 reported illnesses in the entire world over a 25 year period," a startlingly small number given worldwide cheese consumption.
Even the IDFA admits soft and semi-soft cheeses like Camembert—whether from pasteurized milk or not—pose little to no risk.
"The last outbreak in the United States was in 2006," notes the IDFA.
The draft report itself acknowledges a few of its many limitations. For example, it observes that like "all risk assessments, [its] results rely on inferences from limited data and on extrapolations."
It also indicates another key shortcoming—that experts have little idea where and when contamination happens due to "a lack of information about the non-milk contamination sources."
For the FDA, though, these extrapolations, information gaps, and a few rare exceptions may be just the excuse the agency needs to craft a harmful new set of rules.
"[R]egulators suggest they want to see raw milk cheeses like camembert and brie either subject to unprecedented testing, processing similar to pasteurization, or else banned completely," writes journalist David Gumpert, author of the book The Raw Milk Revolution, in a recent Food Safety News column.
The one potential bright spot both Erber and Gumpert note in the report is the indication that aging cheeses may simply allow Listeria more time to grow in those cheeses.
"[O]ne reassuring finding is that aging raw milk cheese for 60 days has no apparent effect on the presence of Listeria—and may do more harm than good," writes Erber. "My only hope is that this information will be used to support eliminating this requirement."
If not more regulations, then what?
"We believe that the best way to prevent food-borne illness in cheese is to obtain our cheeses made by farmers and cheesemakers who work closely with the herd from which they are getting milk, and regularly test the milk for signs of food-borne illness," says Carolyn Stromberg, owner of Washington, DC's Righteous Cheese, in an email to me.