Supporters of Mimolette, a French cheese deliberately exposed to mites, claim it has been outlawed in the US but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said its actions do not amount to a ban.
The FDA refused Mimolette imports in May from French companies including Isigny, Société Fromagère De Bouvron, and Cesar Losfeld, stating that the cheese appeared to be “a filthy, putrid, or decomposed substance or be otherwise unfit for food.”
Importers claim 1.5 tonnes of Mimolette were held up at US customs before being destroyed.
Pat El-Hinnawy, an FDA spokeswoman, told FoodQualityNews.com that the agency only blocked Mimolette with “unacceptable” mite levels, and the “FDA has not banned the importation of Mimolette cheese.”
However, Mimolette’s supporters see the FDA’s seizure differently.
“Of course I think that it's a de facto ban. Why would French importers bother trying to send Mimolette to the US if it can be blocked at the border? It's too big a risk for small businesses,” Cécile Delarue, a French TV journalist and leader of a “Save the Mimolette!” campaign, told us.
Six mites per square inch
Since 1940, the FDA has enforced a limit of six mites per square inch of cheese. Subsequent import checks found three quarters of Mimolette samples topped this number, some containing 4,000 mites per square inch.
El-Hinnawy said excess cheese mites (Acarus siro) broke the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act because they were classed as “filth” but the agency did not know if high concentrations of mites would make consumers ill.
“While the presence of filth does not necessarily mean there will be a negative health consequence if a product is ingested, according to the scientific literature ingestion of mites can result in intestinal parasitic infection (Acariasis) as well as allergic reaction,”she said.
“Absurd” mite limit
Delarue disagreed with the FDA’s mite threshold of six per square inch.
“It seems very absurd to me. I don't understand where this limit comes from. Why not seven? Or five and a half?” she asked.
“I'm still waiting for real facts about the danger of these mites. I never met anyone allergic to Mimolette. Can you die of eating one mite too many?”
Mimolette supporters include Pulitzer Prize winner and LA Times food critic Jonathan Gold, who compared Mimolette to Casu Marzu, a Sardinian cheese riddled with live maggots which can leap onto diners.
Gold defended Mimolette in a video recorded by Delarue, saying cheese is a living product.
“It’s not something you get from the freezer, it’s not something wrapped in plastic. Sometimes when things are alive, things happen to them. And cheese mites don’t hurt anybody.”
Mites less "filthy" than processed cheese
Uniting Mimolette’s supporters was the belief that it is more acceptable than longer-lasting cheeses.
“How come the cheese I can buy at the supermarket can stay in the fridge for months, if not years?” said Delarue. “To me, this never-rotting cheese is filthy and disgusting! That’s unnatural and dangerous to me: the idea that you could create a product that doesn't follow the laws of any living thing on earth.”
For now, US consumers like Delarue are having trouble obtaining Mimolette.
“I bought my last piece of mimolette in LA two months ago,”she said.“Since then, I haven't been able to find any.”
Jamel Debbouze, a French actor who starred in the film Amélie, has recorded a strongly-worded video declaring a ban in the US would mean “the end of France and the end of the French community in the States”.
Ludo Lefebvre, a television chef who has been a judge on Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen, and Michelin-starred chef Jean-François Piège, have also defended Mimolette in videos made with Delarue. Carolynn Spence, a chef at renowned LA restaurant Chateau Marmont, described a potential ban as “the saddest thing I’ve ever heard”.
Mimolette fans have been campaigning against FDA restrictions since April this year .
Jean-François Piège’s “Save the Mimolette” video with Cécile Delarue