For centuries, microscopic mites have been part of the process for making Mimolette, a mild cheese shaped like a cannonball and electric orange in color. For decades, the cheese has been imported from France and distributed to shops and stores across the United States.
That is, until this spring, when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began blocking shipments of the Gouda-like product at U.S. ports, leaving thousands of pounds of it stranded in warehouses from New Jersey to California.
The FDA says inspectors found too many cheese mites per square inch crawling on the cantaloupelike rinds of Mimolette, raising health concerns. (The agency has a target value of 6 mites per square.) But the agency hasn’t explained why it began holding up the cheese shipments after decades of relatively few problems.
The move has provoked outrage among the small-but-fervent band of Mimolette fans, who are fretting about what it means for the fate of other cheeses that rely on mites as part of the aging process.
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“It’s completely natural. You have bugs on every single cheese you leave in the open air,” said Benoit de Vitton, North American representative for Isigny Sainte-Mère, a top exporter of Mimolette based in Normandy. “You can’t have Mimolette without cheese mites. It wouldn’t be Mimolette.”
The protests, which have occurred on both sides of the Atlantic, include a recent Facebook campaign by Jill Erber, who with her husband runs Cheesetique shops in Alexandria and Arlington, Va. “In protest — and in honor of Mimolette, which has been made the same way since King Louis XIV declared it the National Cheese of France, Cheesetique is giving away Mimolette for free … All you have to do is post a photo of yourself frowning pathetically on our Facebook page.”
Scores of gloomy-faced photos began rolling in, from as far as Switzerland. A man and his parrot stared sullenly at the camera. A little girl pouted. A bride holding a bouquet looked indignant.
The cheese-mite tempest began in March, when the FDA stopped a shipment of Mimolette from Isigny, citing the product as “filthy,“ “putrid” and unfit for consumption. Subsequent shipments also got held up, de Vitton said, and the company soon halted shipments to the United States. De Vitton said mites accumulate on the outside of Mimolette during the months it is stored in caves to age. Before shipping, workers brush off the rinds and spray them with compressed air to get rid of most of the mites. “But if you have just one or two mites on the rind, they will reproduce during transportation,” de Vitton said, adding, “No one eats the rind.”
FDA records show that other shipments of Mimolette from companies other than Isigny have been detained recently, but agency officials say there is no official “ban.”
The crackdown has struck a nerve. In New York, protesters took to the streets in April to hand out samples of Mimolette to draw attention to the dispute.
Cathy Strange, global cheese buyer for Whole Foods Market, said the chain has been buying as much remaining Mimolette as it can. “It’s one of those unique cheeses that not too many people know about … It’s one of my favorites. It would be in my top 10.”