New FDA restrictions on the levels of harmless bacteria found in imported cheese have effectively banned a number of artisan French cheeses, including Roquefort, Morbier, and Tomme de Savoie. The restricted bacteria already exist in the human stomach, and the banned cheeses have not changed their recipes for years.
While the restriction is already affecting imports, domestic cheese producers are under the FDA gun, too. Raw milk cheesemakers may be put out of business over a change they say is capricious at best. “There was no health risk in all the years we operated” under the old regulations, says David Gremmels of Rogue Creamery in Oregon, “We look at this as an arbitrary change.”
What arbitrary change?
The limits for nontoxigenic E. coli were cut from 100 MPN (most probable number) per gram to 10 MPN. These are bacteria that live in every human gut; they are typically harmless and we coexist happily. But the FDA considers them a marker for sanitation: If a cheese shows even modest levels of nontoxigenic E. coli, the facility that produced it must be insufficiently clean.
Given that cheese makers haven’t changed their recipes or methods for hundreds of years and no one has gotten sick, these numbers are a sign of not being clean? Â Talk about looking for looking for trouble where none exists. Â In cheese making, it seems that there is such a thing as being too clean. Â Cheese IS mold and bacteria. Â The non-toxic sort, but mold and bacteria nonetheless. Â Surgical style cleanliness is not going to change that.
This is not the first time that the FDA has gone overboard in insisting cheese makers adhere to a brand new draconian sanitation code that will eliminate the molds and bacteria that give different cheeses their distinctive flavors. Â In June of this year, the cleanliness nazis were forced to back down from an order within the United States that cheese makers would no longer be allowed to age the tasty treat on wooden boards, a centuries old practice that has caused no reported harm to humans. Â It seems that wood is too porous for the sanitation snobs. Â The order caused such a hue and cry within the American artisan cheese community that the FDA had no choice but to about face.
This time, though, the cheese in question is impounded in customs and import facilities. Â It comes from France with a small and very pricey market waiting for it. Â Given that the French have no reason to follow American law and even less to be as anal as the FDA when it comes to pasteurizing milk – as the FDA insists all milk should be even if fermented dairy puts the good bugs back in – look to see imported French cheese become a thing of the past. Â For no good reason.
American cheese makers have to meet the same standards and are understandably queasy. Some say it is all but impossible to make compliant raw-milk cheese consistently, and that the lowered tolerance for nontoxigenic E. coli will do nothing to improve public health. â€œThere was no health risk in all the years we operated at 100 MPN,â€ says David Gremmels of Oregonâ€™s Rogue Creamery, which produces several raw-milk blues. â€œWe look at this as an arbitrary change.â€
Cary Bryant, Rogueâ€™s cheese maker, says he worries that the tightened standards may even impair public health. â€œPeople need some microbial diversity in their life,â€ says Bryant, a microbiologist by training. â€œThis is going to create people with immune systems that can never handle anything.â€
But it is going to make probiotic makers rich as humans try to fix the gut bacteria that make up our immune systems.
Life in Obama’s America. Â 28 months to go.