camembert_isignyCheck out this excellent article by Ullrich Fichtner on Spiegel Online International

Just a few short years after receiving its AOC, Camembert de Normandie came under threat in March 2007 as the major producers, French dairy giant Lactalis – the second largest producer of cheese in the world -and the Isigny Sainte-Mère dairy co-operative announced, that they intended to cut production of raw milk Camembert. This was a huge blow given that these companies produce 80% of the Camembert de Normandie (the AOC designated Camembert) made each year and had applied to have the AOC standard rewritten so that thermalized, micro-filtered, industrially processed, cheaper milk would also qualify to be called Camembert de Normandie.  Their argument will be all too familiar to anyone who has followed the raw milk debate.  To explain their move, Lactalis and Isigny cited a 2005 case in which six children suffered from diarrhea after eating Camembert.  The response from Lactalis and Isigny, rather than improved monitoring of production, was to seek to have the rules of production changed to remove raw milk as the basis of a Camembert de Normandie AOC designation.  No matter that this would allow them to reduce input and production costs while still holding the AOC label.  This move on the part of the dairy conglomerate brought a strong reaction from the French press; the public – who attach a strong national sentiment to raw milk Camembert; and from small producers who felt that their livelihood was threatened (introducing new demands on milk meant major investments for them, while Lactalis already controls most of the milk supply in Normandie and has the investment in place).  Fichtner reports that Lactalis has backed down under this pressure and “the damage to its image also jeopardized the company’s market share for other brands and other varieties. Last winter, almost two years after the cheese war began, the company began to realize that it lacked sufficient fighting capacity, that it was losing the war, and that the little rebels out in Normandy were still in control.”

This case raises fascinating issues about certification processes like the AOC and PDO and how they can be manipulated by producer’s consortia to the disadvantage of small producers.  Despite their appearance as a guarantee of ‘tradition’, they mask the fact that ‘tradition’ constantly changes and that large members have the capacity to redefine production standards.  The examples abound but two spring to mind:

1) Despite the fact that at least one cheesemonger in Toronto will still try to sell you a raw milk Stilton, there is no such thing.  The Stilton certification stipulates that to be legally called Stilton, the cheese must be made with pasteurized milk.  While still very good cheese, this is the farthest thing from a ‘traditional’ farmhouse Stilton imaginable. Look for more on this in a later post on Joe Schneider’s fabulous Stichelton Dairy.

2) As market demand for Roquefort has increased, the AOC criteria have also regularly been modified to reduce the number of days that the cheese must spend in the famous caves in Roquefort-Soulzon, and increase the number of rounds that can legally be called Roquefort.  This presumably has, over time, changed the qualities of cheese that we call Roquefort.

Ahh the politics of regulation, the state, and big business.  More on this in future posts, but I am curious to know what people think of Geographical Indication Designations like the AOC and the PDO and what they mean for cheese production.  Comment or drop a line.

For more on the ever enduring Camembert wars, see Pierre Boissard’s wonderful book Camembert: A National Myth.