FOR OUR OWN GOOD?
Eli Jameson looks at our overzealous food regulation – but sees a glimmer of hope
As anyone who has ever flown into Australia knows, the rules for what can and cannot be brought into the country are pretty strict. The official obsession with food and drink and animals and anything that can pass the lips may have valid reasons in science, biology, and economics, but the seemingly-arbitrary nature of what is and isn’t OK sometimes looks more like an application of a secular state religion, always seeking purity and to keep out the unclean.
(Once after returning from an extended holiday in the United States, I found myself at a quarantine desk in an otherwise deserted Sydney Airport arrivals hall waiting for my golf clubs to be cleaned, lest a North American grass seed wedged in my 7-iron throw off the entire Australian ecosystem. I chatted to the young woman manning the station as I waited, and quizzed her about different nationalities and what they’re notorious for smuggling. Japanese? ‘So honest they declare a stick of chewing gum’. Koreans? ‘They try and bring enough food for their entire trip’. Americans? ‘Usually pretty good, but for some reason American girls always try and smuggle a bottle of fat-free salad dressing in their back- packs’, much like Australian backpackers who can be found nursing hangovers from Thailand to Turkey with their own personal jar of Vegemite).
But while some bans make sense – the impending bird flu crisis has customs officers around the world working hard to keep out any potentially-infected poultry products – plenty of others do not. Which is why food lovers down under rejoiced last month when Food Standards Australia New Zealand finally lifted its ban on that marvelously stinky French export, Roquefort cheese. The ban, which represented an unholy alliance between protectionist farmers and the for-your-own-good food police, was an affront to both common sense and good taste. The problem was that Roquefort cheese is made with unpasteurized ewe’s milk (shock, horror), and yet was considered a great delicacy. Thus banning it was an easy call, satisfying both the nanny staters and the competition-shy domestic cheese industry.
Australia’s Federal Parliamentary Secretary for Health Christopher Pyne MP explained the issue recently on ABC Radio: ‘Before 1994, FSANZ had never done an investigation into how the cheese was put together, the circumstances, the production of it. In that intervening time that has gone on, and it’s been determined that the way the French make their cheese, of course, after many hundreds of years of making this cheese, is safe and good for consumers and the Trade Commissioner assures me this morning that there’d be no cases of Roquefort cheese causing illness in France in recorded history…after many years of investigation, FSANZ has decided under the right circumstances and with the right warnings to consumers, that Australians can make their own decisions about what cheeses they eat. They’re grown up enough to determine the risks they like to take and that we don’t believe it is dangerous to Australian consumers.’
Amen to that. Now if only the Australian government – never shy about sticking its nose into the citizenry’s kitchen cupboards, among other places – could take such an enlightened attitude about other food products. For one thing, while unpasteurized Roquefort is now OK, it’s pretty clear that other cheesemakers, both foreign and domestic, will still not be allowed to make or sell similar products on the Australian market.
There are plenty of other bans that make little or no sense and which seem to exist only to give local producers a leg-up. Prosciutto and other fantastic cured meats are generally not permitted; Aussies have to make do with local substitutes. Less-celebrated delicacies – tinned American corned beef hash (trust me on this), for example – are also barred from Australian soil. According to the rules, any product that contains more than 10 per cent dairy or 5 per cent meat requires a special permit, applied for by the manufacturer in the home country. It’s a time-consuming process, and one with which smaller makers overseas simply won’t bother, even if large corporations will. Thus local production is protected, local palates denied.
All this isn’t to say that there aren’t some great Australian cheesemakers, ham-curers, and so on – there are. But as Christopher Pyne says, shouldn’t we be adult enough to make our own decisions? The same thing goes for many products that aren’t available to Australian consumers thanks to one or another regulation. While French foie gras – the liver of specially-fattened geese or ducks – is banned due to bird flu and other concerns (fair enough), the production of the stuff locally is also illegal, thanks to the radical animal rights lobby. Which is a shame, since farmers in the United States have proved that the French hardly have a monopoly on this delicacy. The ban also denies chefs the pleasure of magret de canard, the especially-flavourful breasts from these specially fattened ducks.
Instead, we have to make do with the semi-cooked tinned stuff.
Similarly, hanging game for a week or two in the European manner is forbidden, despite the fact that bacteria are killed at 60 degrees C, and no game goes in the oven at under 200 degrees C. Real salami? Also a no-no; authorities require a ‘starter culture’ be used which adversely affects the taste of artisinal salamis.
All this calls for a radical re-think in how we think about freedom and food. What is more personal and intimate than what we put in our bodies to feed ourselves, or give to our families? No wonder dietary regulations are such a big part of so many religions, especially those that emerged from the desert where preservation is such an issue. Warning labels are one thing, but not allowing consumers the freedom to make up their own minds is quite another. As Pyne says, we’re all adults; let’s eat like it.
In celebration of the lifting of the Roquefort ban, why not get cooking with it? Make a Roquefort dressing or mayonnaise for salads or burgers on the grill; use it in sauces, or just enjoy it on its own. Or try this Roquefort terrine, adapted from The Palms restaurant in South Carolina.
250 grams Roquefort, crumbled 125 grams unsalted butter, softened, 1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon coarsely chopped walnuts, toasted, 2 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper.
Purée half of cheese with butter in a food processor. Transfer purée to a bowl and fold in remaining cheese, 1/4 cup nuts, and pepper. Spoon into a small crock and smooth top. Chill, covered, at least 2 hours to allow flavors to blend.
Before serving, let terrine soften about 30 minutes, then sprinkle top with remaining tablespoon nuts.
Accompaniment: baguette toasts or crackers