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It is the first time ever in France that a cheese producer has voluntarily withdrawn from an AOC.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