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food / travel

A New French Manifesto: Let Them Eat Old Cheese!

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's outright prohibition of the practice of aging cheese on wooden boards has sparked strong reactions, revealing a newfound interest for traditional, fermented food.

Californian Cheese Maker
Californian Cheese Maker
Marie-Claire Frédéric

PARIS — Earlier this year, a new trend started in the United States. The first episode was when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) — citing hygienic reasons — reproached New York State's cheesemakers for their practice of aging cheese on wooden shelving.

The administrative slap almost went unnoticed, until this alarming news in June: The FDA decided to outright prohibit aging cheese on wooden boards. Such a ban is only partially surprising in a sanitary-obsessed country, that pushes the logic as far as pasteurizing honey — despite being antiseptic itself and forbids raw milk cheeses aged less than 60 days.

And now, the latest development came this month when Nora Weiser, executive director of the American Cheese Society, a Denver-based trade association, requested further explanations from the FDA about the sudden ban of an artisanal practice that's been used for time immemorial.

Monica Metz, the FDA’s Egg and Dairy Branch Chief, responded by citing a current regulation. It requires that cheese must be aged on “surfaces that can be adequately cleaned and sanitized,” excluding wood as its “porous structure enables it to absorb and retain bacteria.”

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Cheddar Cheese — Photo: Brian Boucheron via Flickr

The FDA then confirmed that it does not intend to change its policy.

A threat to cheese imports — and American cheese

Weiser quipped that the “clarification only added to the confusion,” since the previous text did not mention wood.

A prohibition of this type of cheese aging is “a threat against traditional methods (…) not only cheese made in the U.S. but also those imported,” including Parmesan, Beaufort, Comté, Reblochon and Cheddar, to name a few.

Wisconsin, a big cheese-producing state, churns out 15,000 metric tons per year, all aged on wood. Such a rule would put an end to the rise of American artisanal cheesemaking, whose production is higher in numbers of tonnage of raw milk cheeses.

War is on

So, who benefits from this new assault? Obviously big industrial interests, who have hereby declared war against artisanal cheeses. But these latest plot twists are stirring more than just the usual food critics.

Economists, scientists, scholars and politicians have also protested. A petition was started on the public website of the White House, and gathered 5,800 signatures within the first few days. A campaign launched on social networks sparked thousands of reactions.

On June 10, the American Cheese Society asked the FDA to reconsider its stance. The case went a stage further the following day, when a group of Congressmen called their colleagues (cheese lovers) to support an amendment preventing the FDA to “go against a process used for centuries.”

In response to the flow of complaints, the federal agency thought it necessary to publish a clarification. It claimed that there had been a vocabulary misunderstanding. It was only “background information on the use of wooden shelving, (...) the language used in this communication may have appeared more definitive than it should have.”

At the same time, there was another step back from the FDA in May, with the lifting of a year-long blockade of 1.5 ton of French Mimolette, which had been banned entry in the U.S. because of the presence of cheese mites on the cantaloupe-like rinds for the aging process.

A new taste for fermented food

There is currently a newfound interest for traditionally fermented food, which are part of human identity. The fermented part of our diet is so deeply rooted in our habits that it would be impossible to eliminate it. In fact, it finds its way back into the small details, like the so-called slices of Beaufort or Reblochon added by McDonald’s in its sandwiches in France that are supposedly identical.

Maybe the big industry went a bit too far. Nowadays, parallel economies are developing, based on short circuits. Common sense re-establishes itself as a force to be reckoned with against hygienic excess.

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Cheese Market — Photo: via Flickr

Science, meanwhile, has now swapped sides. After supporting the industry's stance throughout the 20th century, it now centers its research on raw milk cheeses’ innocuousness, dietary biodiversity, local produce and respect of ancestral traditions. The European Union now acknowledges the importance of traditions, as well as the cultural aspect of food. The EU has taken on a much different interpretation of hygienic rules, including the practice of cheese aging on wooden boards.

The FDA’s policy shifts are not insignificant. For once, Europe is the one setting the example for hygienic regulation. This matters when transatlantic trade and investment negotiations are taking place, and is an expression of a rising backlash against the power of the industrial lobbies. Everywhere, consumers are rejecting sanitized processed food, always overpriced for its real value.

The fermented portion of our diet is rooted deep down in our very ways of life. Inevitably, if unexpectedly, it will always reappear, like the blades of grass sprouting up under an industrial concrete site.

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