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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 18, 2007

Threat to gooey king of cheeses

By Marie-Laure Combes
Associated Press

PARIS True camembert, the pungent and oozing king of French cheeses, is made from raw milk from Normandy cows, unpasteurized, unsterilized and largely untouched by modern technology.

That recipe, dating back to the 18th-century advice of a priest from Brie, is under threat: One of France's elite producers wants to treat milk used for the cheese to respond to growing health concerns and competition and to appeal to globalized palates.

A cooperative in the Normandy town of Isigny-sur-Mer was first to announce it intends to switch to micro-filtered milk, but some fear the change could threaten the distinctive bacterial and farmyard flavor of a good, gooey camembert.

The cooperative, called Isigny-Sainte-Mere, is one of only 10 camembert producers whose cheese can bear the coveted Appellation d'Origine Controlee label, granted to cheeses, wines and other products made according to stringent production rules.

For camembert, an AOC label requires that producers use only untreated milk. Pasteurized camembert marketed abroad is not considered the real thing.

Producers say they want to minimize the possible health risks inherent in the use of raw milk, including the threat of E. coli bacteria.

"I don't want to contaminate consumers. We are responsible" for their health, said the cooperative's assistant general manager, Claude Granjon.

In December 2005, the Reaux company, another AOC camembert producer, closed its factory for more than two months after six children became ill after eating its cheese.

Such cases are rare but of increasing concern to cheese makers. Many French consumers still frequent cheese shops, but others turn to supermarket shelves that include pasteurized and otherwise processed cheeses.

The head of Reaux, Marc Brunet, remains a staunch opponent of micro-filtered milk. "The French consumer is very attached to untreated milk," he said.

The cooperative in Isigny-sur-Mer doesn't want to break the rules, so it has asked the National Institute for Origin and Quality to change those that govern the AOC for camembert.

The Normandy Syndicate of Camembert Producers supports the change.

"Since most of the producers ask for it (the change in the decree), they must undoubtedly have a good reason," said Francois Michel, the syndicate's secretary general.

The INAO panel is to meet this week to examine the case.