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The FDA Is Punishing Cheesemakers

The Food and Drug Administration is, without a doubt, an organization that helps the citizens of this country. Without them around to keep an eye on food producers and drug manufacturers, we'd be left to navigate an ocean of snake oil and encased meats that probably contained a decent amount of workers' fingers inside of them. For the most part, they do their best to keep the public out of harm's way.

But every now and then, in their attempt to enforce regulations, they overstep their boundaries a little bit. And that's what's happened this month with our cheese.

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Know those fancy cheeses from overseas creameries that stink to high heaven? Ones like Roquefort or St. Nectaire or Tomme de Savoie? Well, if you happen to run across any in stores, make sure to snatch them up quick, because they may not be allowed back into the country anytime soon:

The "problem" with the cheeses has to do with the FDA recently changing the limits of E. coli bacteria they'll allow on imports. Before, the FDA allowed foods that contained E. coli up to 100 MPN (which stands for "Most Probable Number," a measure used for entities that are difficult to count precisely) per gram. But recently, they lowered the threshold all the way down to 10 MPN. And none of these cheeses are passing that stringent test.

Their rationale is that E. coli is an indicator of a food producer's sanitation quality, i.e., if a food contains high levels of it, there's a good chance the food contains all sorts of other bad things. The idea makes sense when viewing the broad range of foods entering our country, and the need to have a quality standard in place to test those foods. But that mentality needs to be adjusted when dealing with substances like raw-milk cheese, which inherently contains a certain amount of E. coli.

(Which, mind you, isn't inherently dangerous at all. E. coli itself is generally safe; the human stomach has a bunch of it in the digestive tract. It's a few dangerous strands that contaminate food and ultimately lead to sickness.)

So, all that's really being done in this case is the FDA is keeping American consumers from eating perfectly safe cheese.

The problems between the FDA and cheese don't just involve importers, either. American artisanal cheese-makers are getting the rind as well, albeit in a slightly different capacity. For cheese-makers abroad, if the FDA issues new regulations that don't jive with their sensibilities, they simply cut off supply to America and sell their cheeses elsewhere. For American cheese-makers who rely on selling to the local market, that isn't so much of an option. They try to make sure they're following the FDA's rules as best they can, even if it means messing with their batch to make sure the E. coli levels are down.

The problem is, they don't always know that the FDA is shifting standards. Says Andy Hatch from Uplands Cheese Company in Wisconsin:

The good news in all of this, if there is any? Last time the FDA decided to mess with our cheese by making it illegal to age it on wooden boards, they quickly saw the error of their ways and retracted the move. There's nothing to say they won't reconsider these new pointless regulations if there's enough public sentiment criticizing the move. Which is to say, if you want to save our cheeses, it's worth taking a cue from your favorite fancy variety and start making a big stink.

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