Unhole-y Culmination of Swiss Cheese Debate

Feb. 22, 2001 -- A change in U.S. policy that has been the subject of a "hole-y war" between factions in the United States and Switzerland goes into effect today.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is reducing the size of holes in domestically-produced Swiss cheese, cutting the time-honored standard size eye, or hole, by nearly half.

Some Swiss are taking the new standard as an affront to one of their most beloved exports — one which they export over 20,000 tons of a year.

Bobby Baril, a marketer with Switzerland Cheese Marketing, the Swiss government's promotional arm, called the move "crazy."

"You cannot make something where all the eyes are going to be a quarter of an inch," he said from the organization's office in Quebec City, Canada.

The Swiss daily Blick has also been questioning the decision since it was revealed about a month ago — within hours of newly-elected President Bush's swearing-in on Jan. 20.

Blick ran one interview with a "cheese guru," headlined "A Correct Emmentaler Simply Has Large Holes." Emmentaler is the Swiss name for the cheese.

Another article quoted local cheese dealers, who described the regulation as "totally unreasonable" and "insolence."

One cheese seller even suggested the Americans work on abolishing the death penalty rather than regulating cheese.

For the Convenience of Industry

American cheesemakers asked for the change because cheese with large holes often crumble in high-speed slicing machines, used for large commercial food service operations.

What used to be the minimum size of a hole, 11/16ths of an inch in diameter — about the size of a cherry — is now the maximum size of a hole.

And the new minimum size of a hole is 3/8ths of an inch in diameter — less than the size of a dime.

Cheese that fails to meet that standard — and that will include most traditionally-produced Emmentalers — may not merit a USDA "A" grade.

But the furor over the regulations may be much ado about nothing.

Even though the grades are used through most of the industry, they are voluntary, and Swiss cheese makers say they may not elect to have their cheeses graded.

"It's a win-win situation" said Dr. Warren Clark, CEO of the American Dairy Products Institute in Chicago, one of the organizations that lobbied for the change.

Consumers will be able to get cheeses with both large and small eyes, he said.

National Pride

Clark however, recognizes the Swiss don't see it the same way.

"The Europeans are very upset with this. They say their Swiss cheese tastes better than ours … well, we understand that they say that," he said.

Swiss authorities point out that genuine Emmentaler is made with unpasteurized milk, that is naturally processed and cured, and matures for at least 100 days. American Swiss needs only to be aged 60 days, and is often made with pasteurized milk.

Paul Schilt, Executive Vice President of Switzerland Cheese Marketing said, "Most of the domestic [American] Swiss cheese is factory produced while ours is still from small village dairies."

"Ours is more aromatic, a nuttier Swiss cheese," he said. "The domestic is a bland, very mild cheese."

But Schilt doesn't think that will matter much to the American palate. "I don't think they will notice," he said.

"It don't think it's a big deal, but then I might be wrong."