Lords fight to save Stilton from food watchdog

Click to follow
Indy Politics

Below the gilded ceiling and the statues of the Magna Carta barons, the peers on the red benches of the House of Lords turn today from matters of state to a more exalted subject: Stilton.

Like the aristocratic families whose descendants are still in the second chamber, the "king of cheese" has ruled for hundreds of years, its blue veins a sign of its gastronomic lineage.

Yet all is not well deep in the Stilton-producing counties of Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. Now the 21st century has arrived and a plan to reduce the saltiness of this most aristocratic of foods has caused a whiff of scandal in the Lords.

A Tory peer, Lord Kimball, is demanding to know whether the Government is backing plans for a large cut in Stilton's salt content. And he says he has the support of his fellow peers in opposing any Whitehall interference in the traditional accompaniment to port.

At the centre of The Great Stilton Controversy is a proposal by officials in the Government's Food Standards Agency to reduce the cheese's saltiness from 2.3 per cent to 1.9 per cent. The Stilton Cheese Makers Association says the move would ruin the quality of Stilton, cause many batches to go off and occasionally lead to harmful bacteria being produced. Salt in Stilton is not just a matter of taste, the cheese-makers and their friends in high places say - it is a vital ingredient.

Such is the seriousness of the situation that peers will debate the Stilton controversy after Lord Kimball asks his question. On the eve of the parliamentary showdown, the life peer said the FSA's plan had been causing annoyance in Stilton country, around the market town of Melton Mowbray.

"Deep offence is being felt through the Vale of Belvoir that the Food Standards Agency is investigating the age-old recipes for making Stilton cheese," he protested. "The Food Standards Agency should be tackling salt in mass-produced food. It's nothing to do with Stilton. Salt is essential to Stilton to make sure it does not deteriorate too quickly."

The Food Standards Agency has not been singling Stilton out - officials have been consulting on plans to reduce salt levels across the whole food industry. Excess salt causes heart disease and 80 per cent of the salt we eat comes from processed food. One study estimated that lowering levels could prevent up to 52,000 deaths a year.

Yet within England, just one per cent of cheese sold is Stilton and the proposal will have little effect, say Stilton's supporters.

In any case, they point out that making Stilton less salty will not reduce the British scoffing any of the foreign cheeses such as Danish blue, Gorgonzola and Roquefort, which all have significantly higher levels of salt.

"The contribution it is going to make in the nation's overall consumption of salt is infinitesimal," said Nigel White, spokesman for the Stilton Cheese Makers Association.

He fears that although the salt-reduction would not be compulsory, Stilton makers could be "named and shamed" if they do not comply with the diktat. His association argues that Whitehall's plans could seriously damage one of Britain's greatest culinary achievements, which is now worth £70m a year.

Stilton has been made in the midlands of England since the early 19th century, taking its name from a Cambridgeshire village (no one knows why; it isn't made in Stilton) and the recipe has changed little since.

There is no shortage of political backers to protect the cheese. Roger Helmer, the East Midlands MEP, supports the Government's overall salt reduction strategy. However, he said: "But with Stilton the salt is there not for flavour, it is an essential part of the manufacturing process; the salinity modulates the degree of mould. If you don't have the right amount of salt you can have it going off or causing dangerous bacteria." His message to the ministry is simple: "Stilton is a cultural icon; leave it alone."