Preparing to teach a class on French cheeses recently, I began trying to round up a few favorites, including some of the impeccable cheeses from Pascal Beillevaire. Beillevaire is a highly regarded French affineur, with shops all over France. I have written glowingly about several of his cheeses in the past—gems like Secret du Couvent, Bleu du Bocage, Tomme Brulée and Vendéen Bichonée. Last summer, when I was in Paris for just a few days, I made a point to visit one of the Beillevaire shops (pictured above and below).
But when I called the local distributor, I got some disturbing news: no Beillevaire cheeses. None. Not in the Bay Area or anywhere else in the country. The French firm had ceased shipping to the U.S. about a year ago—I just hadn’t noticed. But why?
The short answer, according to the U.S. importer, is that the costs to Beillevaire outweighed the benefits. But the longer answer is really troubling. It has to do with ramped-up scrutiny by the FDA, presumably in the interest of food safety. Targeting largely (but not exclusively) raw-milk cheese, the FDA is detaining many imports for so long that the products are no longer sellable when released. Offenses range from lack of a proper Nutrition Facts panel to the presence of vegetable ash, the harmless ingredient that puts the ripple in Morbier. Some perishable cheeses are held for bacterial testing, with results that may take weeks to get.
“The problem for a smaller producer (like Beillevaire) is that they don’t have the funds to do all the testing,” says Stephanie Ciano, vice president of international purchasing for World’s Best Cheese, Beillevaire’s former importer. Each test is $350, and each shipment may contain only a few cases of a particular cheese—not enough to justify the investment.
Last summer the FDA put Beillevaire cheeses and several other French cheeses on Import Alert—a situation that I wrote about in Planet Cheese and the Los Angeles Times. Several of Beillevaire’s shipments were destroyed, and the testing costs and paperwork required to rescind the Import Alert were so onerous that Beillevaire bailed. Who needs this tsouris? (That’s not French.)
Raw-milk cheeses aren’t the only ones under the FDA microscope. Fromagerie Guilloteau’s Fromager d’Affinois, one of the best-selling French cheeses in the U.S., was also on Import Alert last year. “It cost (Guilloteau) probably close to $100,000 to get their product released,” says Ciano, “but because they were doing business in the millions in the U.S., for them it was more doable. But small producers are just not going to have the cash to get off an alert.”
A producer on Import Alert needs five consecutive “clean” tests to even petition the FDA for removal, and the allowable bacterial counts are now so low that some cheeses can’t pass. But if these products were really hazardous, wouldn’t the French already know it? They consume way more than we do.
Beillevaire’s withdrawal means the loss of a few hundred thousand dollars a year in sales, say Ciano—not a huge volume but it was growing. “The hardest part is explaining to cheesemongers why these cheeses are not available,” says Stephanie Jordan, a WBC sales representative in the Bay Area. “These limited-production cheeses are what cheese shops want; they’re not the cheeses you’re going to find in a grocery store.”
To Ciano, it can seem like the FDA presumes guilt until the cheese proves its innocence. Portuguese imports have had a particularly rough time, she says. “I had Zimbro (a sheep’s milk cheese) on hold 10 or 12 times last year,” says the importer, “and that was an extremely costly proposition. Sometimes (the FDA) took up to a month to collect the sample, and another month to come back with the results. By that time, the product had expired.”
But did it pass? “That’s the frustrating part,” says Ciano. “It always did.”