Independent cheese makers in France are making a big stink, and perhaps for good reason.

As demand for cheese is on the rise, a new law would allow a particular kind of French delicacy--Camembert--to be classified as authentically Normand, whether or not it's made from raw milk. Chefs, restaurant owners, and cheese makers across the nation are in an uproar, fearing the new law, which takes effect in 2021, will squeeze out the handful of independent manufacturers and give larger, industrialized businesses the competitive edge. 

The issue at hand resembles a similar controversy stateside, over whether companies like Kraft are allowed to use the term "natural" in describing their cheese, when in fact the product has been chemically processed.

"There will be less Camembert generally, and even less of the Camembert made from raw milk. As a result, that cheese will become more expensive and rare, and we could lose our artisan businesses," says Véronique Richez-Lerouge, the founder of a Paris-based non-profit devoted to traditional cheeses, in a phone call with Inc. Richez-Lerouge is among the roughly 40 signatories of an open letter in protest of the regulation, published earlier this week on the French news site Libération. The document calls for French president Emmanuel Macron to roll back the policy, rallying around the cry of "Liberté, Egalité, Camembert!"

For the uninitiated, the difference between cheese made from raw milk and that made from pasteurized milk--whereby the product is heat treated, often in a factory--may not seem significant. Dairy connoisseurs say otherwise; in the letter, they denounce pasteurized Camembert as "shame, scandal, imposture"--and even more lurid: "an ocean of mediocrity."

True Camembert, they argue, relies on unfiltered raw milk from a particular breed of Normandy cattle to achieve the requisite taste and texture. Independent makers laboriously sift the milk by hand into molds, resulting in a gooey, odoriferous center and a brownish outer crust; it is aged for as little as three weeks, and for that reason, critics say the raw milk cheese poses health risks, insofar as it could contain dangerous bacteria. (Indeed, it is illegal to import anything aged less than 60 days into the U.S., so those of us stateside are stuck with the knockoff brands. As Richez-Lerouge tells me: "Americans are completely obsessed with microbes.")

To be fair, the Camembert crisis is far from an economic travesty. There are fewer than a dozen artisanal makers of that particular product, the loss of whom would hardly be felt for long. But the defenders of stinky cheese insist the regulation is symptomatic of a more troubling shift in French policy, and could extend to every artisanal product the nation holds dear. Richez-Lerouge, in particular, is concerned Camembert will no longer be viewed as accessible to the 99 percent, if the prices on knockoff cheeses become artificially low: "Everyone should have the right to eat well, not just the wealthy," she says.

It remains to be seen whether the letter will persuade Macron to act--the French leader arguably has more pressing matters to attend to--but that may not necessarily be the point. For Richez-Lerouge, there has been value in simply raising awareness for local artisans. "Hopefully, with the increased awareness," she says, "more people will say, yes, [Camembert] is good for France."

Published on: May 18, 2018