Small Producers Win ‘Camembert War’

Small producers seeking to retain the use of unpasteurised milk in the production of authentic Camembert have won a significant victory. Large industrial producers of the cheese have been seeking to remove the requirement for Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) regulated Camembert to use unpasturised (raw) milk, as they consider it is a potential health hazard. By contrast, the traditionalists say that only by the use of existing production techniques can the distinctive flavour of one of France’s world famous cultural emblems be retained. They have argued that the attempt by the French multinational Lactalis to be allowed to produce AOC Camembert using pasteurised (heated and filtered) milk is merely a ploy to ease the production process and increase profits.

They now have the support of an official body set up to examine the question, who are believed to be recommending that the use of raw milk remain obligatory in the production process for AOC Camembert.

Other measures to reinforce the link between terroir and taste are also likely to be imposed, notably in the use of la vache normande, 748to the detriment of Holstein cattle, which are more productive, and the current backbone of the stock for cheese production. However, it may well be a pyrrhic victory, for Lactalis and Isigny-Sainte-Mère, the two industrial giants of Camembert, have already abandoned use of unpasteurised milk in certain of their products. Between them, the two companies control around 80% of the French market. Despite the fact that this means they can no longer use ‘AOC’ on all of their Camembert labels, they have far superior access to the main distribution channels into the supermarkets, which is likely to enable them to maintain a dominant market share. Many commentators also consider that the main supermarkets support the desire for some relaxation in the rules, in order to give the product greater shelf life in their stores.

Since the decision of the advisory body, the affair has taken on a new twist, as Lactalis recently undertook their own laboratory health tests on cheeses from one of the small producers, which they submitted to the food and hygiene authority. As a result, some cheeses have had to be temporarily withdrawn from the market, pending official test results. The producer has accused the industrialist of 'dirty tricks'.

Accordingly, if you want to buy the more flavoursome variety you may need to look hard to find it, and you are going to have to look carefully at the packaging. Whilst a Camembert cheese may say fabriqué en Normandie, in fact only that labelled camembert AOC de Normandie is actually the genuine unpasteurised article. 752
Many of the former may not even be manufactured in Normandy, as there are production plants for Camembert cheese throughout the world. Important producers of AOC Camembert include Réo, Graindorge, Moulin de Carel, Durand and, probably the daddy of them all, Gillot. In appearance, the authentic Camembert is more yellow in colour, runnier and softer in texture and, above all, more tasty than its industrial counterpart. Just what is tastes like will depend on the producer from whom you buy it, and the time of year it is made, a far cry from the standardised mass-market variety. Certain other traditional French cheeses have not benefited from the protection now being afforded to Camembert, notably Cantal, which over the past year as lost 40% of its market share, due in the main no doubt to abandoning the use of unpasteurised milk in the production process.

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