Franco-American history features a number of commercial and diplomatic disputes, from the “chicken war” in the 1960s to Donald Trump’s recent declarations about taxing steel and aluminum imported from Europe. With its boycotts and protectionist policies, we explore these conflicts through five episodes looking at the history of certain controversial products.
Episode 4: The FDA Clamps Down on Mimolette Cheese and Cured Meats
All food products imported to the United States are regulated. Customs and Border Protection apply the measures introduced by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Department of Agriculture. As a result, French unpasteurized cheese, charcuterie, and foie gras are regularly turned away.
These two government institutions can put “sanitary measures” in place to quickly block food imports if ever consumers are in danger. This was one consequence of mad cow disease in France: French beef was subjected to an embargo in the United States from 1998 until 2017. “Protective measures can sometimes be used to inconvenience trading partners,” says Cécilia Bellora, economist at the CEPPI, a French institute for international economic research. In short, these provisions can occasionally be unofficial ways of exerting diplomatic pressure.
Egg for an Egg, Tooth for a Tooth
On February 24, 2004, while Franco-American relations had deteriorated in disagreements over the Iraq War, a source of avian flu was identified in Texas. In an effort to contain the crisis, which was also present on the other side of the Atlantic, the European Union suspended imports of eggs, poultry, and birds from U.S. companies. A few hours later, the FDA placed a ban on imported French cured meats such as ham, saucisson, and charcuterie to the United States. France immediately condemned the choice as “unmotivated by health security.”
“American inspectors sent to France observed that the management of sanitary procedures in French companies did not meet their expectations,” said Elisabeth Descamps, an expert in exports of animal products at FranceAgriMer, in an interview with France-Amérique in 2013. “Hygiene standards were respected, but the French were unable to provide the proof the Americans wanted.”
This stand-off continued until 2011, when French ham producers were offered a little respite. That year, the American health authorities decided to offer training courses in France. And while not all companies were able to meet the ultra-strict hygiene standards, certain businesses were given the green light for the U.S. market. Delpeyrat, for example, has been reimporting Bayonne ham to the United States since 2014.
Mimolette cheese met a similar fate to French cured meats. Traditionally made in Northern France and exported to the United States for 20 years, U.S. imports of the orange cheese were banned without warning in 2013. Some 3,300 pounds of it were held in a warehouse in New Jersey before being destroyed. Even the efforts of enthusiasts, who launched a “Save the Mimolette” group and handed out cheese in Greenwich Village, were unable to change the FDA’s stance.
According to the FDA the “boule de Lille” – another name for mimolette – was an “inappropriate” foodstuff. It went on to claim the cheese seemed to be “partially or totally composed of a distasteful, putrid, or rotten substance.” The cause of this damning review was the presence of mites in the rind (an inedible part of the cheese), which were seen as potential “allergens.” Despite requesting the data in order to adapt their production and packaging methods, French cheesemakers were met with silence.
“Measures should be removed as soon as the problem is resolved,” says Cécilia Bellora. However, mimolette reappeared in New York delis and Californian dairy stores in 2014, without any changes being made to its recipe. And there’s nothing to say it won’t disappear again in the future…