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.”

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.

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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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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