Commodities: Cheesed off with the EC

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The Independent Online
NO ONE would ever consider taking the New out of New York. So why is a move afoot to strip the Red from Red Leicester?

In a rampage against potentially harmful food additives, the European Parliament recently voted to reduce colouring used in cheeses made in the community by 80 per cent.

The British dairy industry, already feeling persecuted by EC restrictions on cheesemaking facilities and unpasteurised cheese, is anxiously awaiting a final verdict from the EC Council of Ministers. Certainly, a growing number of consumers now prefer foods without additives as part of increasing awareness of diet and health.

What makes Red Leicester red is annatto, a tasteless, natural vegetable colouring extracted from the seeds of a bush grow in the tropics. It is believed (but not proved) to be harmless unless tons of cheese were consumed by an individual.

But the consequences will be fatal for Red Leicester, with its trademark ruby-orangey hue, if the EC Council ratifies the parliament's recommendation severely to restrict annatto's use.

'It would wipe out a traditional cheese,' says Ed Komorowski, technical director of the Dairy Trade Federation. 'It is such a huge reduction that in no way will the resulting cheese look anything like the current Red Leicester.'

Red Leicester and other affected British cheeses - Double Gloucester, coloured Cheddars, Red Cheshire and Shropshire Blue - would be rendered creamy white or, at best, a dirty yellow. Centuries of British cheesemaking tradition would be ended in one fell swoop.

Those who view cheesemaking as an art form are irate at the prospect of cheeses being stripped of their main identifying characteristic - especially since regional cheeses have enjoyed a surge in popularity in recent years and production of small farmhouse varieties is rising.

British coloured cheeses date back to the 17th century, when saffron was used by West Country farmers to give their simple, skimmed-milk cheeses a richer appearance. The World Atlas of Cheese says that annatto was found in the 18th century to be a cheaper colouring than saffron and more permanent than carrot juice. Since then it has been the most widely used.

Coloured cheeses account for around 9 per cent of Britain's cheese consumption, with about 17,000 metric tons produced in the year to March. Dairies believe people buy them, especially Red Leicester, to add colour and variety to the cheeseboard, with taste being secondary.

The domestic dairy industry feels especially aggrieved that annatto, which it considers harmless, has ended up on the blacklist because only Britain and the Netherlands - which produces Gouda cheese - would be affected by a ruling against it. They are having a hard time drumming up support for their position from other EC members.

About 30 British dairies, from Dairy Crest and Express to small farmhouse operations, produce coloured cheeses. Dairies which depend on coloured cheese for much of their business could be threatened, says Mr Komorowski.

'If Red Leicester and the other coloured cheeses disappear, consumers might substitute continental soft cheeses or waxed cheese like Edam for variety on the cheeseboard, and British jobs would be lost,' he warns.

Lobbying by trade bodies continues, but Red Leicester's fate hangs in the balance, with no date set yet for an EC Council decision.

(Photograph omitted)