Cheese lovers almost had a meltdown. Foodies know that the French are known for their wine and their cheese, but the Food and Drug Administration found that earlier in the year, nine producers of French cheeses tested above the safe threshold levels for consumers for a particular type of bacteria.
Bacteria is often necessary when it comes to making cheese, but there is fine line between mouth-watering delicious and gut-retching dangerous. The FDA found that Roquefort, Morbier, Tomme de Savoie and other French cheeses tested above the levels set in 2010 for the non-toxigenic bacteria E. coli.
Consuming toxigenic E. coli is found to be very dangerous for our health, but nontoxigenic E. coli is considered safe because it is already found in our gut bacteria, which keeps our digestive tract balanced.
The FDA has worked with the American Cheese Society (ACS) to learn more about the measures artisan cheese makers take to make sure their products are safe.
"The current level is in line with standards around the world, and FDA expects that properly manufactured milk products, whether made from raw milk or pasteurized milk, should not be affected," says FDA spokeswoman Lauren Sucher.
The FDA in 2010 reduced the amount of E. coli allowed in food by 90 percent, but only enforced the restrictions recently. The standard maximum bacteria level is now 10 MPN (most probable number) compared to 100 MPN that was previous allowed.
It was previously assumed that if cheese has high levels of nontoxigenic E. coli, the facility might be dirty and the product unsafe for consumption. This means that cheeses with small traces of bacteria could have been removed from shelves.
"There was no health risk in all the years we operated at 100 MPN," David Gremmels of Oregon's Rogue Creamery says. "We look at this as an arbitrary change."
After listening to the concerns from cheese makers, the FDA adjusted its criteria, resulting in 95 percent of the cheeses sampled tested below the level at which FDA would take regulatory action. Six of the nine cheese producers placed on Import Alert 12-10 for exceeding bacterial counts were also removed from the list. The cheese producers can now resume sales and distribution in the U.S.
"The FDA remains dedicated to ensuring a safe and wholesome food supply using the latest science to protect human health, and promoting dialogue with industry, consumers and other interested parties, " the government agency writes.
In France, the way the cheese is made does not raise any alarms. Those who make Roquefort cheese can trace its production lineage back a millennium.
"There's a lot of confusion (over the rules) ... getting hold of any soft cheese is really a pain," Washington's Righteous Cheese shop manager, Peter McNamara says.
The FDA has also raided Amish farms to prevent raw milk production. The agency previously banned wood-board aged cheeses over its bacteria, but reversed the ruling.
Note: The article has been updated to reflect these changes.