Trouble at the dairy

Big cheeses in the French food industry threaten small producers

My first shopping basket on arriving in Normandy always includes a Camembert. I have to wait for market day for the rich, pungent cheeses of Monsieur Barbot, so I make do with reliable and widely available brands such as Lanquetot or Lepetit. But the boxes looked different this Easter. They no longer bore the legends "au lait cru" - made with raw milk - or "appellation d'origine contrôée" (AOC). I went for an unpasteurised Camembert by Reflets de France - the label of the Carrefour chain; it turned out to be just as good.

News of the disappearing AOCs has reached the Times and Radio 4's Today programme, where the development has been portrayed as an attack by the authorities on traditional cheese-making. It would be more accurate to describe it as an attack by large dairies on the authorities.

Camembert is one of a handful of cheeses that have to be made with raw milk to qualify for AOC status. Unpasteurised-cheese enthusiasts argue that pasteurisation kills off bacteria and enzymes that contribute to savouriness. If you have tasted a good, unpasteurised Camembert, you will concede the enthusiasts' point: it has a depth of flavour quite unlike that - both bland and ammoniacal - of the factory-produced, pasteurised varieties. But the safety of the process causes controversy. The enthusiasts argue that unpasteurised cheese is more likely to be safe, and they say that almost all cases of poisoning in recent years have been associated with pasteurised products. Nevertheless, countries including the US, Australia and New Zealand ban the importation of Camembert and other raw-milk cheeses.

Lanquetot and Lepetit come from the giant Lactalis co-operative, which, along with Isigny Sainte-Mère, used to be responsible for 90 per cent of the unpasteurised cheese production in Normandy. The firms petitioned to be allowed to introduce microfiltering, which they said was necessary to eliminate the E coli bacteria present in between 1 and 2 per cent of unpasteurised Camemberts. But the authorities did not relent. So, while "not doing it with a light heart", Lactalis and Isigny withdrew from the AOC system on 1 April. It was the price to be paid, Lactalis said, for avoiding sending children to hospital.

These attempts to take the moral high ground are not entirely convincing. A rival co-operative now says that it has found a way to eliminate E coli from its unpasteurised cheeses. Lactalis and Isigny, critics believe, want to bend the system in order to cut costs, and to produce AOC cheeses that have longer shelf-lives. Artisan dairies, such as Monsieur Barbot's, would carry on making their cheeses to high standards, but the distinctiveness of AOC Camembert would be lost. Bureaucrats: hold your ground.

Nicholas Clee's food blog is at http://nicholasclee.blogspot.com

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