Have you heard about all those people getting sick from eating Roquefort, raw-milk Morbier and raw-milk Tomme de Savoie? I haven’t either because it hasn’t happened. And the FDA is going to make sure that it doesn’t.
In fact, the agency’s tightened guidelines are making these French classics scarce at American cheese counters. Temporarily? Forever more? We can’t know. But several European creameries recently learned that their products are on Import Alert, meaning that the FDA considers the cheeses unfit for sale. You may still find some of these cheeses in shops because distributors had inventory, but we could be looking at a holiday season without Roquefort.
Cheeses land on Import Alert if an FDA sample exceeds allowable bacterial counts. According to the U.S. representative for Pascal Beillevaire, one of the French affineurs whose cheeses are being detained, it takes six months, five “clean” samples and a daunting application to get off the list.
Few dispute the need for government oversight of food safety. There are a lot of bad actors out there. But the French eat far more Roquefort than we do—only Comté outsells it in France —and they are not getting sick from it. So why the stepped-up enforcement by the FDA?
Late in 2010, without explanation, the FDA lowered its tolerance for nontoxigenic E. coli in cheese. Nontoxigenic bacteria don’t produce toxins. We all have them in our gut, and we co-exist happily. But the FDA considers nontoxigenic E. coli to be a marker for sanitation. If a cheese shows high levels of nontoxigenic E. coli, the facility that produced it must not be clean.
This premise has flaws, but it’s understandable why the FDA relies on it. The agency can’t visit every cheese plant so has to find some indicator to measure. The current outcry arose after the agency altered its guidelines, limiting nontoxigenic E. coli in cheese to 10 MPN (most probable number) per gram, down from 100. Producers and exporters learned of the changes only when their cheeses began being detained and destroyed. Carles, Coulet and Papillon—all top-notch Roquefort producers—are just a few of the big names on the recent Import Alert, a list that also includes Arrigoni (for Roccolo) and Jean d’Alos (for Cabrioulet).
Not surprisingly, European producers are now reluctant to ship cheeses that may be denied entry. The two biggest Roquefort makers—Société and Papillon—are going to start testing before shipping, but that’s no guarantee that their cheeses will pass FDA tests. And few other producers have the resources to take such risks.
Domestic cheese makers must comply with the same standards, and many are feeling threatened. “They shifted the goal posts without warning,” says Andy Hatch, owner of Uplands Cheese Company in Wisconsin. Two weeks ago, Hatch announced that his creamery would not make any Rush Creek Reserve this year, an acclaimed raw-milk cheese from the farm’s rich autumn cow’s milk.
“I’m not worried about my ability to meet those standards,” says Hatch. “I’m worried about what new standards are going to show up unannounced. What if, a month from now, I have 14,000 pounds of Rush Creek in my aging room and they say ‘zero nontoxigenic bacteria’?”
Typical FDA rule-making follows a predictable pattern: data collection, published findings, public comment, new rule. But these guidelines “came without warning,” says Hatch. “No business should be comfortable operating that way. And what business do they have regulating bacteria that are not harmful to human health?”
Other cheese makers echo Hatch’s contention that the change was arbitrary, inexplicable and unlikely to enhance public health. “There was no health risk during the years we were operating at 100,” says David Gremmels, co-owner of Rogue Creamery in Oregon, which makes the raw-milk Rogue River Blue (pictured above).
Some say that it is now virtually impossible to make compliant raw-milk cheese consistently. Milk with low levels of E. coli can test clean, says Dennis D’Amico, an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut whose specialty is dairy microbiology. But cheese making concentrates the bacteria, even at the most fastidious creamery. “You send milk through that you think does not have E. coli, and you end up with cheese above 10,” says the scientist.
Cary Bryant, Rogue’s cheese maker, says his raw-milk wheels routinely comply. Even so, he thinks the limit is too restrictive and possibly counterproductive.
“I’m afraid of how the FDA is trying to eliminate microbial diversity in our food,” says Bryant, a microbiologist by training. “This is going to create people with immune systems that can never handle anything—like never exercising and then having to run a marathon. It’s really doing a disservice to the population.”