Australia lifts Roquefort cheese safety ban
after more than 10 years of safety worries, offering hope of a
change in fortunes for speciality cheese down-under.
Food safety inspectors from Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) legalised the iconic blue cheese after visiting production facilities in southern France where it is made.
Roquefort has been banished from Australia for more than a decade due to concerns about it being made with unpasteurised sheep's milk.
A number of food scientists have previously claimed that cheeses made from raw milk are more susceptible to certain food pathogens, including E-coli, campylobactor and listeria, than their pasteurised alternatives.
"Before a raw milk cheese is approved, FSANZ must be satisfied that the cheese has a level of safety equivalent to cheeses made from heat-treated or pasteurised milk," said Christopher Pyne, Australia's parliamentary secretary for health and ageing.
The decision to lift the ban could now herald a sales spurt for producers as Australians look to satisfy pent-up desires. Yet, some observers have been more cautious about the potential of the smelly gallic wonder.
Australian dairy sector analysts estimate that prospective demand for Roquefort would be in the region of just 20-30 tonness per year, while French consumers munch an estimated 1.45m tons of blue cheese per year.
Perhaps more important for Europe's dairy processors is the precedent that could have been set.
FSANZ was quick to play down talk of a flurry of speciality cheeses receiving endorsements. "The approval covers only the sale of Roquefort raw milk cheese made under specific conditions in France. Other blue mould cheeses, whether imported or domestically produced, are not covered," said Pyre.
But, he added that "FSANZ is part way through the development of a National Dairy Primary Production and Processing Standard. This will include permissions to domestically manufacture 'Roquefort-like' cheeses, where safety can be assured."
In 1998, the Australian and New Zealand authorities amended the food safety code to allow the sale of Swiss cheeses gruyère, emmenthal and sbrinz - all of which are made using unpasteurised milk.
Carol Barnao, director of the New Zealand Food Safety Authority's dairy products division, said earlier this year that a further 14 applications for European speciality cheeses produced using raw milk had been lodged.
French dairy group Lactalis, the world's eighth biggest dairy company, could stand to benefit from any relaxation of the rules by FSANZ. The firm generates around €2.2bn per year from exports of its speciality cheese brands (including its popular Société Roquefort brand) - representing 40 per cent of its €5.5bn total turnover.
Under Australia's food labelling laws, a statement will be required on Roquefort cheese to indicate that it has been manufactured from milk that is unpasteurised and sourced from sheep.
Roquefort is France's number two cheese, with around 18,500 tonnes produced every year. Comté, a hard, almost cheddar-like cheese, is head and shoulders above the rest on 44,700 tonnes, according to statistics from the French government's agency for controlled-origin products (INAO).