Magazine article The New Yorker

The Cheese Stands Alone

Magazine article The New Yorker

The Cheese Stands Alone

Article excerpt

THE CHEESE STANDS ALONE

--Jeffrey Toobin

Partisan politics shut down the federal government this fall, but it may be a source of reassurance that the official monitors of food safety remained ever vigilant. Consider the recent case of a French (c)migr(c) named Benoit de Vitton. De Vitton grew up in Normandy, where his father insisted on strict adherence to local culinary tradition. "My dad would go crazy if we ever skipped the cheese at the end of a meal," he said the other day, at a coffee shop near his apartment, on the Lower East Side. De Vitton moved to Strasbourg to study political science, but he nurtured an early passion for life on the other side of the Atlantic. A term as an exchange student in Montreal led to a job in New York with Isigny Sainte-Mere, a cooperative of small French dairy farms (averaging about twenty-five cows apiece), which was trying to expand its exports of cheese, cream, and butter to the United States. "We were doing great," de Vitton said. Then, last March, he received a series of disturbing phone calls. "I am in the last step to get a huge customer, and he calls me and says, 'Hey, we have to postpone. I hear you have a problem with the F.D.A.,' " de Vitton said. "Ten minutes later, I get a call from another customer. Same thing: F.D.A. detention."

The subject of the calls was Mimolette, a legendary French cheese and de Vitton's marquee product. During the seventeenth century, the story goes, France stopped importing Dutch cheeses like Gouda and Edam. French farmers responded by creating Mimolette, which is similar to both, colored orange by the addition of annatto seeds and shaped into a ball. Mimolette looks a lot like a cantaloupe, its orange flesh covered by a mottled, uneven rind.

The holes in Mimolette rind come from the burrowing of mites, and the insects, which resemble extra-small bedbugs, were the reason for the phone calls. Inspectors from the Food and Drug Administration had found concentrations of between five hundred and two thousand mites per square inch, well in excess of the six mites per inch permitted in cheeses by federal law. The offense, in the blunt argot of the bureaucracy, was "the presence of filth contamination. …

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