Camembert Wars

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Camembert is France 's best-selling cheese after Emmental, so it is not surprising that French industrial diary giants moved in to mass-produce it, buying up small producers and delivering vast amounts of cheaper, machine-produced camembert to supermarket shelves. There are only five remaining small, traditional producers of the prized "Camembert de Normandie."

Last year, the two industrial giants that produced 80% of the exclusive Normandy Camembert that carries France 's famous Apellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) stamp of approval, tried to change the rules. Until then, all prized AOC-approved Normandy camembert had been made with raw milk. The big groups decided instead to make most of their Camembert with pasteurized milk, saying they wanted to protect consumers' health because, when manufacturing large volumes, they could not ensure raw milk was free of dangerous bacteria. Pasteurizing their milk ~ a process which was cheaper and better suited to mass-production ~ meant the dairy giants could no longer carry the prized AOC label. But they began a fight to win back the precious AOC stamp, arguing that pasteurized cheese should be included in it.

In March, 2008, Camembert aficionados breathed a sigh of relief when, after a long public battle, cheese authorities said they would protect small producers by reserving the AOC only for Normandy Camembert made in the traditional way with raw milk.

But small cheese-makers say the war is not over and the fight could be turning dirty. In recent weeks, the biggest industrial producer, Lactalis, snitched on a smaller, traditional competitor, telling authorities that dangerous bacteria was found in a batch of AOC raw milk Camembert produced by Réaux. Coincidentally, Réaux happened to be one of Lactalis's biggest critics. The smaller company said there was no evidence of contamination. "This was an operation to destabilize us, it's a new episode in the camembert war, that's for sure," said Réaux's director Bertrand Gillot.

"The camembert war is a symbol of the wider cheese crisis in France," warned Véronique Richez-Lerouge, founder of France 's Regional Cheese Association, which lobbies to protect traditional raw-milk varieties.

France produces 1,000 cheese varieties, and its huge consumption is second only to the champion cheese-eaters of Europe , the Greeks. But the problem for French purists is the type of cheese that the French are wolfing down. Raw milk cheese makes up only 15% of the market. Dozens of traditional cheese varieties have disappeared over the past 30 years as small producers die out or are bought up by industrial giants.

Gérard Roger, a camembert historian and president of the newly-created defense Committee for Authentic Camembert, reluctantly agreed to taste-test a mass-produced, big-selling supermarket camembert. "Wow, it stinks," he says sniffing the pale, uniform cheese. "It's dull, it tastes of nothing." Roger's group, which has organized street demonstrations, see themselves as "guardians of the temple". Now they have won a victory in the AOC battle for raw milk camembert, they are lobbying to protect authentic production methods, encouraging more small farmers to make cheese using milk from local Normandy cows.

Francis Rouchaud the group's secretary and a former marketing expert, said the big industrial producers wanted to put out a maximum number of Camembert products: "It's Coca-Cola thinking".

But small French producers are still on guard against mass-produced cheese. Inspecting his matured Camemberts, Durand said: "We must keep fighting to defend raw milk cheese, but we can't do it alone, French consumers must help us."

Guardian News & Media 2008
Published: 4/18/2008


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