France in panic over killer soft cheese

A SERIES of well-publicised - possibly over-publicised - cases of listeria in cheese has sent shock waves through the French dairy industry.

Traditional producers see a plot in Paris or Brussels, even in America, to destroy one of the great creations of French culture: the soft, runny cheese, made with raw, unpasteurised milk. Domestic sales of two varieties of cheese - epoisses and saint-felicien - have fallen by nearly 70 per cent. Unless sales pick up, even larger firms will be driven out of business.

The scare began when two people died, and a third lapsed into a coma, in January after eating a bad batch of "epoisses" made by a rogue company, which did not have the right to use the name. Since then the health ministry has ordered the withdrawal of several batches of cheese in which minuscule traces of listeria were detected. Cheeses affected include varieties of camembert, chaource, savoyard and maroilles.

All are made from raw, whole milk. In theory such cheeses are made from unpasteurised milk. In fact, many producers use methods that do involve a certain amount of heat treatment. Traditional manufacturers insist it is these cheeses - not the genuinely raw milk cheeses - that are causing the problems. Overall, cases of listeria in French cheese have, in fact, fallen in recent years.

Some producers blame the health ministry for demanding the withdrawal of cheeses from the market on the slightest indication of infection. Others say that a 1994 French law, based on an over-rigorous EU directive, victimises soft and runny cheeses, because it allows zero-tolerance of listeria.

There is also suspicion that the new health drive is a response to long-standing US demands for the creation of world trading standards for cheese, which would, in effect, make pasteurisation compulsory.

Alain Dubois, a Parisian cheese trader, said: "Listeria is everywhere, in water, in the air, in the soil. If you did the same kind of minute analysis of german sausages or Norwegian salmon, the results would be very amusing ... The French dairy industry is the safest in the world. There is no cause to threaten small producers in this way or to despise people who still want to eat real food."

Cheese wholesaler, Laurent Dubois, said there was a great unfairness in the consumer reaction. Sales of raw-milk, unpasteurised cheese had been worst affected. In fact, all the cheeses that had been incriminated had been made from milk which was part-pasteurised or heat treated. "These techniques neutralise the bacteria in the raw milk. But some of these are antibodies, which defend the cheese naturally against dangerous bacteria. If listeria gets into these cheeses accidentally, it can develop unchecked."

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