Globalization battle plays out in French cheese industry
By Matthew Saltmarsh
Friday, October 17, 2008
PARIS: Philippe Alléosse's cellar in Paris is an Aladdin's cave for lovers of French cheese.
His temperature- and humidity-controlled subterranean storage rooms in the 17th Arrondissement are packed with carefully aged varieties, among them Brin d'Amour from Corsica, Bethmale from the Pyrénées and Bleu de Gex from Haut-Jura. He knows just when to add a dash of water or Chablis to the rind and when the product should finally be released to the public.
But Alléosse, premier maître artisan fromager affineur, or master cheese ager, fears that he is one of a dying breed.
He is worried that industrial processes - from sourcing through production and distribution - are squeezing small farmers and threatening to deny consumers the choice, complexity and quality of a product that is considered a luxury in many countries but a staple on French tables.
The giant producers counter that such complaints are sour grapes and that traditionalists are scared of losing market share to new techniques, resentful of their profit. Consumers, they say, are happy with the products available and prices charged.
The debate seems to go to the heart of an acutely French dilemma: whether to embrace globalization, or to fight to preserve heritage. For now, the tussle is centered on the process of pasteurization and the effect that it is having on the product and the market.
"Raw milk is the battlefield," said Pierre Boisard, a sociologist who is author of "Camembert: A National Myth." One mass producer in particular, Lactalis, has altered the landscape through its production of traditional products using industrial methods, he said.
"It's a problem," he added. "It hurts the brands of the traditional producers" who have "legitimate grievances."
Citing health concerns, and related import restrictions imposed by large markets like the United States, Lactalis moved away from making cheese from raw, or unpasteurized, milk, favoring pasteurization, which it says helps kill harmful bacteria. Small producers say that pasteurization wipes out positive bacteria as well. Both sides can produce scientific studies to back their claims.
Tensions recently bubbled over after Lactalis and the Isigny Sainte-Mère cooperative, a smaller rival, began to treat the milk used in their Camembert, which previously had been made with raw milk.
Lactalis, a private group based in Normandy, is the largest cheese and milk producer in Europe and also the world's biggest producer of unpasteurized cheeses. Globally, it is No.2 to Kraft of the United States.
It started using a gentle form of pasteurization that heats the milk to a lower temperature than is the norm for pasteurization. This so-called thermizing process removes potentially harmful bacteria, the company says.
Champions of small producers say that the health concerns are a smokescreen for seeking greater profit through increased volume and efficiency, as pasteurized cheeses are allowed to stay longer on supermarket shelves.
In thermizing its milk, Lactalis sacrificed its Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée, or AOC, status, a label supplied by a government body to verify that a product has achieved certain standards. But the industrial giant subsequently led a fight to win back the precious stamp, arguing that pasteurized cheeses should be included.
Camembert lovers were relieved when, after a long public battle, the authorities said in March that they would protect small producers by reserving the AOC only for Normandy Camembert made in the traditional way. The small producers won that battle, but the broader war continues, as many are wondering whether Lactalis will open up a new front.
Cheese is big business here. There are an estimated 400 types of cheese in France, and no other country offers the creativity and range in its cheese making. In addition to world-famous AOC cheeses like Roquefort and Brie de Meaux, there are hundreds of cheeses with regional nuances.
At first glance, the industry appears healthy. According to the Maison du Lait, which represents dairy producers, French cheese production rose 1.7 percent to 1.9 million tons last year from a year earlier. Sales at large stores rose 2.2 percent and French exports were 4 percent higher. But production of AOC cheese was down 1.2 percent last year and raw milk cheese production fell 3.8 percent.
"The big worry is whether we will be able to preserve what we have inherited," Alléosse said as he darted around his cellar, tapping a maturing Tomme de Brebis Ottavi with his "sonde," one end of which is a small hammer used to test density. The other end bores into the rich interior to produce a "carotte" for tasting.
"There's a scarcity of producers," he said. "They are leaving the regions for the towns. No one wants to run these small businesses. They have been built over centuries, and in a matter of years, we are losing them in many parts of France."
Lactalis, meanwhile, employs 15,000 people in France in 74 locations, of which 19 are in mountainous regions. While it mass-produces brands like Président Camembert and Bridel Emmental, it is also makes a swath of AOC cheeses.
Dairy prices have risen alongside nearly all food prices in the past year, but small producers say the price that farmers get for their milk has not risen in line and hence only the distributors and the big players like Lactilis have benefited.
"We never wanted to kill small producers; they have the capacity to kill themselves," said Luc Morelon, director of communications at Lactalis. "We have other objectives: to develop a French company and to increase the consumption of cheeses and dairy products worldwide with good brands and consumer confidence due to quality."
"It is a silly debate," he added. "We have invested a lot of money in modernizing these facilities. It is a clear that our consumers are satisfied."
Alléosse bemoaned the passing of an era, noting that his children were not interested in taking over his business after his retirement. "It's a taste, a texture, an ideology," he said. "Cheese brings pleasure, and if we can't provide that people will look elsewhere."
He is supported in his battle by Véronique Richez-Lerouge, founder of a regional cheese association. She complains about a "standardization" of the product as the mass market elbows out smaller producers by buying their land, pooling milk and hence deteriorating the final product.
"It's not just big industrial groups that are responsible," Richez-Lerouge said. "It's the public, it's society, it's government - we've accepted, we've compromised."
Richez-Lerouge has even produced a calendar of French women posing in their underwear to try to bring publicity to the cause. She wants certain producing areas to be protected from sale to large groups in the way that Champagne producers are, and for the benefits of price rises to be passed on to small producers rather than distributors and large groups. Others hope a solution can occur without such intervention. "The battle is not lost yet," Boisard said. "There are still cheese shops, there is still choice. We must hope that there are enough passionate people out there to preserve what we have."
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