Global health fears challenge unpasteurised cheeses

By Neil Merrett

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Pasteurization, Milk

From petite fromageries in France to artisan sellers in Quebec and Kansas, the sale of unpasteurised milk in cheese continues to divide opinion, with recent health scares endangering the entire sector.

In the first of a two-part series, DairyReporter.com focuses on how the potential for pathogenic contamination in cheeses such as camembert is affecting producers.

Cheese producers who use unpasteurised milk are facing tough times.

Earlier this month, a report appearing in the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report alleged a 2007 outbreak of the bacteria Campylobacter jejuni in the state of Kansas may have been linked to cheese made from unpasteurised milk.

Three months ago, authorities in the Canadian province of Quebec announced millions of dollars in aid to protect the region’s raw-milk derived cheese industry. A sector it says that was hit hard in 2008 by scares regarding cross-contamination of some cheeses with listeriosis.

Even in France, spiritual homeland of cheese varieties such as the geographically protected camembert, leading manufacturers have found themselves at odds with seemingly more traditional manufacturers over making the cheese. Fears over hygiene in relation to unpasteurised milk use have been a particular point of contention.

Heat treating

Groups like multinational Lactalis have turned to using thermised milk – which it says is a softer form of heat treatment - in its camembert, following health scares linked to potential contamination of unpasteurised cheese.

Only raw milk is currently permitted under the French Appellation​d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC), a system similar to the EU’s​geographical indications (GI) that requires specific guidelines on producing certain foods.

While this has meant that Lactalis is currently unable to claim the AOC Camembert de Normandie on its own brands of the cheese, group spokesperson Luc Morelon claims the company has had little choice.

Morelon said that it had to move away from using raw milk in its cheeses due to what he called a slight, but nonetheless real, danger of pathogenic micro organisms in the cheese that had been linked to an alleged 2005 contamination of E coli 026.

Setback

As a major multinational producer, the spokesperson said that Lactalis could not be seen to fail ignore health concerns related to its products.

Last October, Lactalis said it has opted to shut its production plant at Sainte-Marie-aux-Anglais, Normandy, in an attempt to improve cost efficiency of the company’s overall operations.

The company claims that negative press reaction in France to its decision over raw milk has lead to a loss of contracts for the manufacture of some private label cheese products, meaning production at the site is no longer cost effective.

AOC safety

Nonetheless, on the AOC Camembert de Normandie website, the committee claims that raw milk camembert worthy of the designation was bound by strict production techniques relating to quality and safety.

According to the AOC definition, milk used to produce the cheese must be fully compliant with legal requirements. Sourced livestock must therefore be proven to be free tuberculosis and brucellosis, while any milk used must be in liquid and not condensed or dried forms, and free from colouring substances.

In the final part of this series, DairyReporter.com looks at how Quebec’s artisan unpasteurised cheese sector is meeting the challenges of balancing safety and consumer demand on the North American market.

The article can be found here​.

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