By Janet Fletcher
San Francisco Chronicle
May 26, 2005
If you’re a fan of French cheese, you’re in for some unwelcome surprises at the cheese counter. Some favorite cheeses have vanished and others don’t taste like they used to.
Reblochon, Bleu de Gex and Vacherin Mont d’Or are among the missing, while the Loire Valley’s famed goat cheeses — Valengay, Sainte-Maure de Touraine and Pouligny-Saint-Pierre, among others — have lost flavor, retailers say, as producers switch to pasteurized milk for the cheeses they export to the United States.
Importers, brokers and retailers have conflicting explanations for the changes, partly because they remain baffled by the morass of French and U.S. government regulations.
Some, like Cathy Goldsmith and Ursula Schulz of Berkeley’s Cheese Board Collective, speculate that the United States is retaliating against France for some perceived offense or trade spat. Others think that because of concern over bioterrorism the Food and Drug Administration is merely ratcheting up enforcement of existing laws, and that some cheeses, long illegal here but available, are victims of the increased scrutiny.
Certainly some French cheeses have been sold here with a wink, an unstated acknowledgement that they did not meet the FDA’s 60-day aging requirement for raw-milk cheeses. Sainte-Maure de Touraine from the highly regarded French producer Jacquin, a cheese that must be made from raw milk to earn the desirable AOC (appellation d’origine controlie) status, has been easy to find in recent years, despite the fact that it is typically matured for less than six weeks. Now it’s gone, replaced by a non-AOC version made with pasteurized milk.
“The pasteurized versions are just not very good,” Goldsmith says. “They don’t ripen in the same way. They get flat and bitter as opposed to gooey and rich and multilayered in flavor.”
Sales have dropped, Goldsmith says, as shoppers familiar with the raw-milk originals notice the difference. “Customers are disgusted,” she says. “Some of them say, `We’ll just have to go to Europe.'”
John Winterman, who buys cheese for Gary Danko’s acclaimed cheese service, says he recently learned that he can no longer get Langres, a French washed-rind cheese. “Currently there are no Langres producers on the approved list of the FDA,” Winterman says. “I’ve been doing the cheese program here for three years, and for the first two, we had no problem getting raw-milk goat cheeses [from Jacquin]. Now everything coming is pasteurized.”
According to Goldsmith, Jacquin had devised a method for aging raw-milk goat cheeses beyond the 60-day minimum, yet the cheeses still can’t be sold here. What appears to be tripping up some of them is not the 60-day rule — otherwise, Jacquin’s extra-aged cheeses would be legal — but provisions in French and American law aimed at restricting the entry of soft and semisoft cheeses that might harbor listeria or other pathogens.
Although these laws have been in place for years, both sides appear to be closing loopholes — on the French side, probably to avoid an outright ban on such cheeses.
A matter of definition
According to John Sheehan of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, in the 1980s both countries agreed that all soft cheeses from France would be made from pasteurized milk in plants certified by the French government. This followed the detection of the harmful listeria bacteria in some French Brie.
But just what is a soft cheese, and whose definition rules? The French use the Codex Alimentarius, the international food code promulgated by the United Nations, which defines soft cheese by its moisture content. But U.S. inspectors have a different playbook.
“We don’t enforce French standards or Codex Alimentarius,” Sheehan says. “We only enforce American standards.”
The U. S. Code of Federal Regulations lists no standard for soft cheese, only for soft-ripened (such as Brie) and semi-soft. Both definitions permit the use of raw milk if the cheese meets the 60-day aging requirement.
But two relatively recent developments tightened the noose on such cheeses. In November, the FDA issued a revised statement on soft cheeses from France, enlarging the category to include semi-soft and soft-ripened cheeses. This new interpretation effectively requires all such cheeses to be made in approved dairies from pasteurized milk.
Dealing another blow, the French government agreed that cheeses defined as soft — a Reblochon, for example, by the new U.S. interpretation — would be considered unsuitable for sale if aged more than 60 days.
“The pressure came from the U.S.,” says Andrew Durnford, the Paris-based broker for Cheese Works, a major U.S. importer of French cheeses. “In France, producers always considered Reblochon a semi-pressed cheese, not a soft cheese. But it was agreed between the FDA and the French ministry of agriculture that Reblochon was illegal. Full stop.”
Why the French acquiesced to this redefinition, which will force many raw-milk cheese makers to retool their plants if they want to export to the United States, puzzles Durnford. “They haven’t battled anything at all as far as I can make out,” says the broker. “They’ve acceded.”
One Reblochon producer, Le Farto de Thtnes, decided to reformulate its cheese to lower the moisture content and take it out of the soft category. The revamped cheese, christened Fromage de Savoie, is made with raw milk and aged at least 60 days. It looks like a Reblochon, but the texture is firmer; indeed, the label describes it as a semi-hard cheese, a term unlikely to come to mind for a ripe, oozy Reblochon.
One importer had to destroy a shipment of Bleu de Gex recently — 11 wheels worth about $2,000 — when U.S. officials decided that, as a semi-soft cheese, it was subject to the pasteurized-milk requirement for soft cheeses. Because Bleu de Gex is always made with raw milk, the cheese was deemed illegal, although the importer insisted the cheese had been aged 90 days
“Right now, there’s lots of confusion,” says the importer, who declined to be named. “I’ve had so many roundabout conversations with people. A lot of it has to do with not having a common language.”
The flustered importer wasn’t referring to the challenge of communicating with the French, but to the difficulty of dialogue with government inspectors who don’t use cheese terminology in the same way that industry professionals do. When cheesemakers speak of soft-ripened cheeses, they’re talking about cheeses like brie and camembert that have powdery-white, mold-covered rinds and that ripen from the outside in.
“It’s ripened, it’s soft, so it’s soft-ripened,” said Sheehan about Bleu de Gex, although he later confirmed via e-mail that his office considers it a semi-soft cheese.
Consumers mourning the disappearance or alteration of their favorite cheeses may find some comfort in the notion that their cheese counter is now a safer place. But how much safer is hard to know. Aged raw-milk cheeses have a remarkable safety record, which prompts some cheese professionals to wonder whether the costs of the new government scrutiny exceed the benefits.
“We used to get these little French goat cheeses that tasted just like the field the goats were grazing on,” says Goldsmith of the Cheese Board, “and we’ll never see those again. I do support food safety, but is there an issue of food safety? That’s my question.”