Cows With Scrubbed Teats, DNA Checks, Yield Old-Time Camembert

(Bloomberg – France)

By Ladka Bauerova


When contaminated Camembert landed six French children in hospitals in 2007, Daniel Delahaye stopped making the cheese the traditional way, using raw milk.


Although his company Isigny Sainte-Mere, based in the eponymous town in Normandy in northwestern France, hadn’t made the tainted cheese, he felt he couldn’t guarantee its safety. Now, driven by demand from Carrefour SA and other supermarkets, he and other large industrial cheese makers like Groupe Lactalis are going back to making the white, creamy cheese the old- fashioned way -- with a modern twist.


Using testing machines that detect the presence of poisonous bacteria in raw milk, Isigny is marrying new technology with an almost 300-year-old tradition to conserve the savor. The move will help the company keep the Appellation d’Origine Controlee, or AOC, brand -- France’s gastronomic stamp of approval -- that cheese aficionados seek out and which requires the use of un-pasteurized milk.


“It’s as if the French have suddenly found their traditional values again,” said Delahaye, the director of Isigny, France’s third-biggest producer of Camembert. “We’ve never had as much demand for AOC products as we do now.”


The AOC Camembert production halt by Isigny and Lactalis, Europe’s largest cheese producer that owns the President and Lepetit brands, resulted in a 51 percent drop in the output of the cheese, according to the National Interprofessional Dairy Center in Paris. Lactalis pushed the French government’s food certification body, INAO, last year to relax rules and award the AOC label to Camembert made from pasteurized milk.


The INAO threw the case out, ruling that only cheese made from raw milk can claim that designation. Lactalis gave up on the label, claiming the danger of food poisoning.


Now, as large grocers like Carrefour and Systeme U seek out AOC products, Lactalis wants to be back in the game. The company has been approached by retailers eager to sell gourmet products, said Luc Morelon, a Lactalis spokesman.


“We are thinking about going back to making raw-milk Camembert because there is demand among retailers who want to sell it under their own brands,” Morelon said. “But first we need to make absolutely sure that we can avoid contamination.”


At Isigny, the AOC produce used to account for just 7.5 percent of the 40 million euros ($51 million) in Camembert sales. Isigny, which has annual sales of 200 million euros, says it’s aiming for 8 million euros in AOC Camembert sales next year, almost triple what it was in 2006.


AOC Camembert makers buy their milk from a small, select group of farms in Normandy. They go to farmers like Paul Pezet, 60, and his wife, Eliane, in the coastal village of Criqueville en Bessai.


They have a modern milking apparatus and keep their 68 cows on a meticulously clean family farm. The cows feed on fresh grass that grows all year round in the region.


Every morning, long before the sun rises, the Pezets disinfect the teats of the cows with a yellowish solution, rubbing them dry before attaching milking tubes.


The milk, kept in a stainless steel container, is shipped to Isigny every two days. The Pezets are among about 50 farmers that meet Isigny’s sanitation rules for AOC Camembert. The company, supplied by about 600 farmers, also makes non-AOC products like Pont L’Eveque cheese, butter and creme fraiche.


“For raw-milk Camembert, we use only the most trustworthy farmers who strictly adhere to our hygiene requirements,” said Olivier Dauguet, who is in charge of collecting milk at Isigny. “We test every single batch of milk.”


The milk is tested using polymer chain reaction, a new technique that detects the presence of undesirable bacteria by identifying their DNA. Isigny is leading the way in adapting the machines hitherto used in forensic science and in paternity suits to test milk.


It is much faster and more reliable than the traditional technique using petri dishes, which took a whole week, according to technician Christine Thuaudait.


The milk is heated to 35 degrees and mixed with rennet, an enzyme extracted from young calves’ stomachs that helps thicken it to a creamy consistency. The thick white liquid is then ladled into round cylinders and left to firm up.


The following day, the cheese is injected with salted water, placed on racks and left to ripen for at least two weeks, enough time for the characteristic white mold to develop. The very ripe, runny Camemberts can spend up to a month on the rack before they’re packaged and shipped off to customers.


The AOC label is worth the trouble. A certified raw-milk Camembert sold in Paris under Monoprix supermarket’s “gourmet” line fetches 3.55 euros, three times as much as a regular Camembert made from pasteurized milk.


“The quality is incomparable,” said Thierry Graindorge, the owner of Fromagerie Graindorge, which never stopped making AOC Camembert. “The cheese made from raw milk just tastes so much better that people are willing to pay extra for it.”


While the efforts may not win the company business in one of its key export markets, the U.S., which bans raw-milk cheeses as unhygienic, at home it’s making a difference.


“Thanks to this top-notch technology, we were able to go back to our roots,” said Delahaye. 3-17-09





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