Banning Fancy French Cheese

I’m no cheese connoisseur.  I’m usually happy with American or provolone, and I’ll even go for that Philly favorite, Cheese Whiz.  But I understand that some people have more refined tastes, and they feel very strongly about the issue.  And they get very upset when their favorite cheese is taken away. The Washington Post reports on a recent instance of this:

For centuries, microscopic mites have been part of the process for making Mimolette, a mild-tasting cheese shaped like a cannonball and electric orange in color. For decades, the cheese has been imported from France and distributed to shops and grocery stores across the United States.

That is, until this spring, when the Food and Drug Administration 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 cantaloupe-like rinds of Mimolette, raising health concerns. But it hasn’t explained exactly why it began holding up the cheese shipments after decades of relatively few problems. “The only thing we can do is cite our regulations, which show very clearly that our job is to protect the food supply,” FDA spokeswoman Patricia El-Hinnawy said.

Cato’s Caleb Brown has just done an excellent video on this issue, and Walter Olson explains a bit more here:

Mimolette is a beloved French cheese produced for hundreds of years around the city of Lille. It looks somewhat like a ripe cantaloupe and tastes not unlike classic Dutch Gouda, to which it is related. Its distinctively pitted rind and hard-to-pin-down taste both arise from the action of microscopic cheese mites that are deliberately introduced to its surface as part of its production. Mimolette has been imported to specialty cheese shops in the United States for many years without incident, but now it’s come to the attention of the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is afraid that someone might have an allergic reaction to lingering remnants of the insect helpers (which are mostly removed in processing before final shipment). Now a large quantity of the expensive cheese is sitting in a warehouse in New Jersey, legally frozen, while its American fanciers prepare to go without. 

Hans Bader of CEI has also reported on this.

I just wanted to weigh in briefly on the trade law aspects of the issue.  One of the WTO agreements deals with “Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures.”  It covers a number of government measures, including those applied “to protect human or animal life or health … from risks arising from additives, contaminants, toxins or disease-causing organisms in foods, beverages or feedstuffs,”  where those measures “directly or indirectly, affect international trade.”  My sense is that the FDA actions would be covered by these terms, and thus the agreement applies here.

So then you get into the substance of the agreement.  Among other things, it requires that governments “shall ensure that any sanitary or phytosanitary measure is applied only to the extent necessary to protect human, animal or plant life or health, is based on scientific principles and is not maintained without sufficient scientific evidence … .”  It also says that governments “shall ensure that their sanitary or phytosanitary measures are based on an assessment, as appropriate to the circumstances, of the risks to human, animal or plant life or health, taking into account risk assessment techniques developed by the relevant international organizations.”

What these and related provisions mean, in a nutshell, is that these kinds of government actions have to be backed up by science (there are other obligations, too, but I don’t want to drag this post on too much).  That’s easy to say in the abstract, but what does it mean in practice?  Basically, if there is a complaint under the agreement, a WTO panel hearing a claim under these provisions will consult with scientific experts to figure out what the science is, and then reach a conclusion on whether the measure violates the agreement (that is, if it is based on sound science).

What does the science say here?  I don’t know much about it myself, but there is the following from the Post article:

Rachel Dutton, a microbiologist who runs a cheese research lab at Harvard University, said people who handle cheese and come into contact with large amounts of mites have been known to have occasional allergic reactions. But she said she’s unaware of anyone getting sick from eating mites in cheese, which itself is full of various microbes that provide distinct textures, flavors and aromas.

“I understand their desire to protect the consumer,” Dutton said of the FDA’s caution. But “it’s true that these cheeses have been consumed for hundreds, if not thousands, of years with no apparent link to disease from the mites.”

Whether a WTO complaint is brought depends on how hard the EU (which acts for the French government at the WTO) wants to press this issue.  Some behind the scenes lobbying might be quicker, but if that fails, perhaps they will decide it’s worth taking the case to the WTO.