It Ain't Easy Bein' Cheesy: The FDA's Double Standard For Kraft Cheese and Real Cheese


For the Food and Drug Administration, 2013 is the Year of the Cheese. Within the last three months, two interesting developments in the dairy aisle have had some people scratching their head and other people up in arms. The first example came in March, when moms making the cable talk show rounds drew our attention to two dyes, Yellow #5 and Yellow #6, used in that delightful paragon of childhood lunchtimes, macaroni and cheese. Now, the FDA is involved in another debate on a little-known French variety of cheese with some microscopic problems.

Mimolette, a French competitor to Gouda, was created in the 17th century. At first glance, it very much resembles a cantaloupe with its perforated outer shell that gives way to its bright orange interior (an aesthetic touch to set it apart from its Dutch rival). The taste is described as a "lactic tang", but can vary depending on the age, even resembling Parmesan in its younger stages. As a culinary tradition, Mimolette has been around since the 17th century and has been consumed happily without much debate thus far.

So what's the problem?

Cheese mites. No bigger than a pin head, cheese mites are used by cultivators to eat microscopic holes on the outside and oxygenate the inside for several years before they are blown away by compressed air and a good brushing-off with the hands. This process is a key component to its preparation and gives Mimolette its unique flavor. In this process, some mites remain after the cleaning, but not enough to cause the one documented side effect: allergies.

Policymakers and cheese-lovers alike acknowledge that the idea of microscopic bugs is unappealing to many consumers. Microbiologist Rachel Dutton of Harvard points out, "There definitely are microbes that can spoil food and make either it bad for you to eat or just sort of gross. But any time 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."

The outcry to preserve Mimolette is minimal, but it comes at a time when the mothers trying to draw attention to Yellow #5 and Yellow #6 aren't making much headway either.

Lisa Leake and Vani Hari started an online petition in March to remove the yellow dyes that had been removed elsewhere but are still allowed in the United States. Yellow #5 and Yellow #6 are added to Kraft's American mac and cheese for "aesthetic purposes only" and give it that quintessential raver-yellow, neon hue that some kids find so appealing. Ingredients of these food dyes contain chemicals that are derived from petroleum and are known carcinogens. They could also possibly increase hyperactivity in children. In the United Kingdom, these dyes have been replaced with safe, natural paprika and beta carotene, which do not affect the color or the taste.

Leake and Hari targeted Kraft because it's an American brand and they realize the potential example the company can set for the rest of the country, but the petition still lacks several thousand signatures and the ingredients are still on the shelves. 

In her statement, a spokeswoman for Kraft asserted, "The safety and quality of our products is our highest priority and we take consumer concerns very seriously ... We carefully follow the laws and regulations in the countries where our products are sold. So in the U.S., we only use colors that are approved and deemed safe for food use by the FDA.”

In other words, I wouldn't expect flavors like "Mighty Mimolette" to hit the Kraft aisle anytime soon.