SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Finally to the Food and Drug Administration, which is embroiled in a surprisingly heated culinary standoff over French cheese. Regulators say that Mimolette, an orange cheese that looks kind of like a small cantaloupe, cannot be imported because it contains too many cheese mites. But as Dina Prichep reports, the mites are what makes the cheese Mimolette.
DINA PRICHEP, BYLINE: Benoit de Vitton is the North American representative for Isigny, a major French cheesemaker. And since March, all of his Mimolette shipments - about a ton of cheese - have been held up because of one small problem - one very small problem.
BENOIT DE VITTON: Well, if you look, like here, all you see, like the dust. That's cheese mites.
PRICHEP: Cheese mites, which de Vitton is scraping off the rind of Mimolette, are microscopic bugs. They're mostly a mild industry nuisance that are brushed off aged cheeses. But for Mimolette, they're actually encouraged.
VITTON: The Mimolette has been made this way since the 17th century, with the cheese mite eating the rind. They really affect on the nuttiness of the taste.
PRICHEP: When the cheese is done aging, the mites are removed. But there are always some left behind. And now the FDA is cracking down. They don't want to see more than six mites per square inch, which for Mimolette is an impossible standard.
VITTON: They say the product because of the mites is not proper for human consumption. What we think is, like, it's been 20 years without an issue. And also we have absolutely no proof that the mites are bad for you.
RACHEL DUTTON: There have been documented cases of some types of allergic reactions.
PRICHEP: Rachel Dutton is a microbiologist at Harvard University, where she runs a cheese lab.
DUTTON: But it's only been found, as far as I can tell, in people who actually work with large numbers of these mite populations.
PRICHEP: While we might not like to think about bugs on our foods - bacteria, yeasts, molds and cheese mites - Dutton says that we really do depend on them.
DUTTON: There definitely are microbes that can spoil food and make either it bad for you to eat or just sort of gross. But anytime you eat a piece of cheese or a bite of yogurt, have a piece of bread or a glass of wine, these are all examples of foods fermented by different types of microbes.
PRICHEP: And these microbes are everywhere. Cheese lovers are worried about what the FDA limit could mean for other aged cheeses, which almost all have some mites. But if it's just Mimolette, is it really a big deal? Well, it definitely is to the French. They aren't rioting in the streets yet, but there are stories on French radio and television, and YouTube videos where other French cheeses come together in support of their fallen compatriot.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in French)
PRICHEP: But for the rest of us? Like many Americans, Portland cheesemonger Sasha Davies has no problem, say, reaching for a slice of gouda instead.
SASHA DAVIES: I can find other cheeses that touch on different flavor notes that I miss about an aged Mimolette.
PRICHEP: But Davies knows it's really not about the caramelly notes or lactic tang or even mites.
DAVIES: There are cheeses that, you know, even though I think they taste delicious, they tug at my heartstrings, either because I love the person who makes them, or I have this great memory of being in a special place. Food is never really just food.
PRICHEP: And for those who grew up in Northern France, like cheese rep Benoit de Vitton, Mimolette is one of those foods that has an emotional pull. You can hear it as he unpacks his final shipment.
(SOUNDBITE OF ZIPPING)
VITTON: That's going to be my last Mimolette until I go back to France. Ah, rest in peace.
PRICHEP: De Vitton is still trying to figure out what to do with his detained cheese and what to do in the future. But for now, he's savoring one last taste of Mimolette. For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHEESE ALARM")
ROBYN HITCHCOCK: (Singing) Oh please, somebody ring the cheese alarm. Oh please, somebody ring the cheese alarm. 'Cause cheese...
SIMON: Robyn Hitchcock. And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.