Three years ago, one of France’s most respected affineurs stopped shipping his sublime cheeses to the U.S. Pascal Beillevaire was a cheese-world rock star, his wares selling briskly here and at his 20 shops in France. Then, in mid-2014, the FDA put the entire line on Import Alert, along with cheeses from several other European producers. The banned cheeses, tested on entry, had failed to clear the FDA’s high bar.
Getting products off Import Alert is so onerous and costly that small exporters often can’t manage it. It certainly appeared that Beillevaire would be one such casualty. But—hooray—after a long absence, the cheeses are back. The shapely Clochette (above) and other favorites of mine like Bleu du Bocage, Tomme Brulée and Secret du Couvent are returning to American cheese counters, and Beillevaire says business is better than it was before the interruption.
For some quick history about that Import Alert and the immediate aftermath, please check my earlier Planet Cheese post. Last month I met with Pascal and his son, Fabrice, at the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco and learned how they handled this crisis.
“Honestly, when we received that (FDA) letter, it was really painful,” said Fabrice. “We didn’t have the skills to deal with it.”
Nobody at the company spoke English—Fabrice does now—and no one knew how to interact with the FDA.
In 2015, FDA inspectors spent two days auditing Beillevaire’s facilities in western France, reviewing everything from the milk collection to the packaging. The company implemented some improvements and then tackled the next hurdle: achieving five consecutive “clean” shipments to the U.S. If all five passed, the company could petition to get the ban lifted.
This sounds perfectly reasonable. Why should the FDA admit cheeses that present a public-health risk?
Two answers: European labs and FDA labs don’t always get the same results. (I’m told the FDA labs are antiquated.) And in 2014, according to many cheesemakers, some of the FDA’s bacteria thresholds were unreasonably low. Responding to pressure, the agency has since backed off a bit.
Long story short, with some help from Murray’s Cheese in New York, Beillevaire cleared all the hurdles and got the FDA’s blessing in mid-2016. The company now tests every batch of cheese intended for export. If it doesn’t meet FDA standards, it stays in France and the French enjoy it. “We don’t throw anything away,” Fabrice said.
Beillevaire has also cut back on the variety it offers the U.S. In the past, distributors could order anything from the catalog, including many cheeses that the company matures but doesn’t make. Today, Beillevaire exports primarily its own production.
Another change: the young goat cheeses like Clochette are produced to order. That means they are as fresh as possible when they leave France, by air, and arrive here with some reasonable life expectancy.
In retrospect, Fabrice says the FDA experience was a positive one. The company’s testing expenses have risen two to three percent, “but you feel more relaxed,” he admits. “Because once you have a pallet detained, it costs a fortune.”
In California, look for Pascal Beillevaire Clochette at these retailers. The company has distributors on the East Coast and in the Midwest, so ask your specialty cheese retailer for Beillevaire cheeses.