Cheddar is good, but feta is better - Clay Wilson

It can hardly be debated that Greece has already had an enormous influence on the world.

The ancient Greeks provided much of the basis for modern Western civilization. Their philosophy, mathematics and scientific inquiries built the foundation on which much of Western thought rests.

Now the Greeks are at it again. This time they're out to decide the fate of feta.

According to the Associated Press, a batch of the pungent, piquant cheese for which Greek food is famous was recently tainted with listeria bacteria (which, despite the fact that it almost rhymes, is not as cute as it sounds).

In response, Greece's minister of agriculture has announced the formation of a "feta police" squad – that's really what he's calling it. Apparently, the Greeks take their cheese very seriously.

"We will be merciless," the AP quoted the agriculture minister as saying. "This is insulting for the country, its institutions and the product."

Greek authorities are investigating how the cheese became tainted with listeria, which can cause symptoms ranging from mild in healthy people to severe in children, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems.

The agriculture minister said the company that sold the contaminated feta to Norway will be prosecuted and closed if it is found to have violated "cheese-making regulations."

At first this struck me as rather harsh, but then I remembered that we here in the U.S. take our food products seriously, too.

A couple of years ago Georgia officials were incensed when Russia banned importation of the state's poultry because of alleged health concerns. Everybody from the commissioner of agriculture to the state's U.S. senators weighed in on the issue.

And then there was the time when U.S. beef producers sued Oprah Winfrey for defamation after she said on national TV that she wouldn't eat hamburgers because of the threat of mad cow disease.

As I said, people take food seriously.

But besides trying to protect its famous foodstuff from physical contamination, Greece is also apparently trying to defend feta's good name.

According to the AP, the European Union last year declared that only Greece can use the name "feta" on cheese. The EU apparently bought Greece's argument that the only real feta is that produced from the milk of sheep and goats that feast on herbage in the Greek countryside.

The AP also reported that this decision has upset Denmark, which was marketing its own version of "feta."

One can only wonder whether, in addition to their duties of keeping Greek feta free of listeria, the feta police will also have to patrol grocery stores for fake "feta" from other countries.

Of course, I also wonder whether the feta police will be armed. Will they have cheese slicers in holsters at their sides, ready to whip them out at a moment's notice to test the quality of suspect samples?

Whatever the case, I hope these front-line soldiers in the cheese wars will be well-trained, well-equipped and well-compensated.

After all, the feta of the world will rest on their shoulders.

Clay Wilson is the education and public safety reporter for the Daily Herald. His column appears on Wednesdays. He can be reached at (770) 957-9161 or by e-mail at cwilson@henryherald.com.