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Fate of France's Cheeses in Doubt as Producers Cite Health Risks

The fate of one of France's best-loved cheeses is in question after the two biggest manufacturers of "real Camembert" -- the traditional variety made with untreated "raw" milk -- stopped production, citing health risks for the consumer.

To the fury of purists, Lactalis and the Isigny Cooperative -- who together supplied 90 percent of "lait cru" (raw milk) Camembert made in the northwest region of Normandy -- have switched to using treated milk for their top brands on the grounds that it is safer.

In so doing they have had to surrender the coveted "Appellation d'Origine Controlee" status, which is normally seen both as a certificate of authenticity and a vital boost for sales.

It is the first time ever in France that a cheese producer has voluntarily withdrawn from an AOC.

Spokesmen for the companies said the reason for the unprecedented move is the impossibility of eliminating the health threat from bacteria in milk that has not been subjected to heating or "microfiltration." "This was an extremely difficult decision to take.

'Lait cru' Camembert is in our genes," said Luc Morelon, communications director at Lactalis -- the world's biggest manufacturer of dairy goods.

"So why did we do it? Because consumer safety is paramount, and we cannot guarantee it 100 percent.

We cannot accept the risk of seeing our historic brands disappearing because of an accident in production." But food campaigners are up in arms because they say Lactalis and Isigny Cooperative are acting out of purely business motives.

And they fear the companies may yet use their commercial weight to get AOC regulators to change the rules -- placing the future of traditional Camembert in real jeopardy.

"They talk about a supposed danger to health, but they know it is nonsense.

Their real reason is that they want to step up production, and it is impossible to do that using 'lait cru'," said Ger ard Roger, president of the newly-created Defence Committee for Authentic Camembert.

"What this is all about is the limits of mass marketing.

A behemoth like Lactalis cannot answer to the needs of the real Camembert -- which is not just a cheese but part of our culture," he said.

For cheese-lovers, the difference between a genuine Normandy "lait cru" Camembert and the common supermarket variety made with pasteurised milk is like the difference between vintage wine and a mass-produced "vin de table." "Camembert does not exist unless it is made with untreated milk.

'Lait cru' is what gives the richness, the taste, the originality.

If you heat the milk, you'll still have a cheese, but it won't be Camembert," said Roger.

Half a century ago there were scores of independent dairies across the Normandy region of northwest France making 'lait cru' Camembert, but now the number has dwindled to just five -- as Lactalis has steadily bought up nearly all the small family-run operations.

In 2006 Lactalis produced 8,000 tonnes of "real Camembert" -- alongside vast quantities of the pasteurised cheese -- but it has now stopped 'lait cru' for its best-selling brands Lepetit and Languetot.

Today the milk is heat-treated, though at a lower temperature than for full-blown pasteurisation.

With Isigny Cooperative following suit with a process of "microfiltration" that is also banned by AOC rules, overall production of 'lait cru' Camembert will fall by two-thirds this year from 12,500 to 4,000 tonnes.

"The big companies have launched a hostile take-over bid for Normandy Camembert," said Bertrand Gillot, whose Reo brand of 'lait cru' cheese has been manufactured by hand in the village of Lessay for 80 years.

"They have already introduced machines for pouring out the curds, while we continue to use hand-held ladles.

Now they are switching to treated milk, beca use they cannot make 'lait cru' Camembert on the scale they want," he said.

Two years ago Gillot halted production after an outbreak of illnesses in children was linked to a harmful bacterium in Reo cheese, but he has since further increased health checks and insists eating 'lait cru' Camembert is much less dangerous than driving a car.

His biggest concern is that Lactalis will prevail on the National Institute for Quality and Certificates of Origin (INAO) to loosen the rules, so that heat-treated or microfiltered milk also qualifies for AOC status.

"If INAO does that, it will kill 'lait cru' because there will be nothing to distinguish our authentic Camemberts from their ones," he said.

"And if we lose 'lait cru,' we'll never get it back.

The culture, the knowledge, the methods -- they'll all be gone for good."


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