Global Economics

Inside France's Cheese War


A two-year battle among French producers over the recipe for genuine Camembert cheese has finally ended—and the traditionalists won

When Luc Morelon was still convinced that this was a winnable war, he was willing to give interviews in his office on the 30th floor of the Montparnasse Tower, with its view of the Eiffel Tower and of a deceptively peaceful-looking sea of shimmering Parisian rooftops in the morning mist. Wearing a tie with a pattern of little colorful goats on it, Morelon, a heavy-set, white-haired man, sat at his desk facing a laptop filled with data and charts of his company, Lactalis. With 125 plants worldwide, 32,000 employees and €9.6 billion ($12.2 billion) in annual sales, Lactalis is Europe's largest cheese producer, a global giant and a company that is easy to hate.

He had had a grueling year as the spokesman for Lactalis. Now it was winter again and Morelon, the company's powerful director in charge of communication and disinformation, had gotten used to playing the role of villain. He curtly rejected the first few requests for an interview, writing, without the customary niceties and French flourishes, that he was no longer available for further attacks by the "self-proclaimed custodians of tradition," and that he was tired of listening to the chants of "the small against the big" and the constant talk of a "Camembert war."

But it is a war. Or at least it was one until recently, when it ended with a total capitulation, a humiliating defeat for Morelon and Lactalis, following a series of dirty skirmishes and loud, behind-the-scenes battles that were waged for almost two years. The bitter dispute began in March 2007, when Lactalis and the Isigny Sainte-Mère dairy co-operative announced, in a coordinated move, their intention to halt the large-scale production of raw milk Camembert. It may not sound like much, but this was the first shot in the Norman cheese war, a thundering, unexpected explosion.

Suddenly the world's most famous cheese was in jeopardy. It was a severe blow to French national pride. This was about France's culinary splendor, which like the beret, the bottle of wine and the baguette, is as much a part of the French self-image as it is a time-honored cliché. Until then, Lactalis and Isigny had together produced more than 80 percent of the true and unique "Camembert de Normandie." The companies were responsible for 10,000 of the 13,000 tons of Camembert produced in France each year, or 42 million of 52 million boxes of cheese. And now they were saying, after more than 100 years of tradition, that it was all over, that Camembert made with raw milk presented an imminent danger and was a health hazard. It was a declaration of war.

More than Just Camembert

At first, French newspapers and magazines devoted as much attention to the story as they would have to a terrorist attack in downtown Paris. In fact, it was characterized as a kind of assassination, an assault on culinary tradition and the attempted murder of small Camembert producers. At first, it was not about cheese but tradition, about so much more than Camembert.

Morelon, whose job was to sell the company's decision to the public, became the symbolic figure of an anonymous industry that was laying its hands on France's holiest of possessions, all in the interest of profit. Instead of simply getting out of the market for raw milk Camembert and tacitly turning it over to other producers, from the very beginning Lactalis and Isigny behaved as if they wanted to destroy the entire market.

First of all they applied to the relevant authorities to have the celebrated Camembert Charter—whereby the cheese is legally certified with the Appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC), a term of origin valid under European Union law—rewritten for their benefit. In addition to raw milk, they wanted thermized, micro-filtered, industrially processed, cheaper milk to also qualify for the original Normandy Camembert certificate. Despite being Frenchmen in France, they seemed to be behaving like clueless foreigners from the European Union—those people who were ignorant of the French art of pleasure and who had always wanted to see everything pasteurized, heated at high temperatures and destroyed.

Or did they? "It's the Franco-French lunacy," said Morelon on the one occasion he deigned to give an interview to SPIEGEL. He is a man who is difficult to meet and who never agrees to be photographed, and during the interview it was obvious that he was seething inside. "We want to kill tradition? We?" he demanded. "We, monsieur, are the biggest producer of traditional cheese in France," he said, "of Roquefort, of Reblochon, of Bleu d'Auvergne—all of this is truly bizarre." He had to control himself, he said, in light of this nonsense, this flight of fancy of certain Paris cliques who were exploiting his company "for their fantasies, for their fear-mongering speeches about the specters of globalization."

At first, when the decision to get out of the raw milk Camembert business had just been made, Morelon's arguments were more balanced. He talked about high production costs, increases in the price of milk and a market that would collapse if the retail price rose above €2 ($2.55) per wheel of Camembert. "Hygienic risk" played a role, but it was not the decisive factor, not yet at least. But before long, as the people stubbornly defended their Camembert and their outrage over Lactalis and Isigny grew, the two companies settled on a more a straightforward message that was easier to sell: Camembert made with raw milk is dangerous. Contamination with E. coli, listeria and salmonella, they argued, was not just possible but probable.

Descended Out of Nowhere

The people at Lactalis and Isigny kept reciting a case that had happened four years ago, when six children got diarrhea after eating Camembert. The only possible conclusion, they argued, was that the rules of production had to be changed, and raw milk had to be removed from the picture. After all, the health of children, pregnant women and the elderly was at stake. This message, disseminated with the full force of a major corporation, did in fact threaten the livelihoods of cheesemakers in Normandy, who felt that they had been drawn into a war that had descended upon them out of nowhere.

The home of Camembert is a region of rolling hills, 200 kilometers (125 miles) west of Paris, known as Pays d'Auge. The English Channel is nearby, as are the beaches of the legendary Normandy invasion. Farther inland, this is the French countryside of picture postcards, complete with cows and calves grazing under apple trees, old hedges lining little country roads and hunched-over farmers carrying bags of nuts on their backs. The region looks like a snapshot of good old France, reflecting the longings of a nation that has never quite gotten over its transition from agrarian to industrial society.

Most of the nine remaining Camembert producers have their cheese dairies here, while a few others are farther out on the Cotentin, the neatly serrated peninsula with the city of Cherbourg at its tip. Their names—Gillot, Graindorge, Réaux and Leroux—are as venerable as the tradition which, as legend has it, began in 1791, when a priest from the Brie region, who had fled from the Revolution, showed Marie Harel, a local dairy farmer, how to make cheese. There is probably little truth to this story, but many in the region like to believe it, and it has been told so many times that countless monuments to Marie Harel have been built over the centuries in a region where many cities and villages have given their names to a variety of cheese: Livarot, Neufchâtel, Pont l'Evêque, Camembert.

In Camembert, a village consisting of a few houses and a small church, old ladles, churns, butter tubs and round, faded cheese labels are on display at the local museum, the Maison du Camembert. A similar, but larger museum is located in nearby Vimoutiers, and many other monuments and shrines to Camembert have been built. Songs have been sung and poems written about Camembert, and it eventually rose to prominence as France's national cheese during World War I, when Camembert makers gave a day's worth of production to soldiers on the front once a week. The word Camembert carries a lot of weight in France.

Arduous Work

A five-minute drive from the village, François Durand stands in his hot, humid cheese dairy every morning. He is the world's smallest producer of traditional Camembert, and the only farmer who makes his Camembert solely with the milk of his own cows. Durand is a thin, bespectacled man with bad teeth, who sometimes sings as he works. But he is silent most of the time.

On this morning, his 60 cows have yielded more than 600 liters of milk, enough to make 254 wheels of cheese. Durand walks around long tables made of Inox steel, uses a ladle to scoop the thickly set raw milk into cheese molds, attentively filling them, one at a time, like a waiter serving food at a banquet. During the course of the morning, he goes through the same motion five times with each mold, performing it 1,000-1,500 times a day. It is monotonous, arduous work, but it is part of the rules of the Camembert Charter, "moulé à la louche," which, loosely translated, means: Only manual labor produces good cheese.

In dark rooms next to the cheese dairy, the wheels ripen away aromatically, after they have been salted, after they have acquired their shell of good fungi, each 250-gram piece turning into a handful of pleasure, each containing upwards of 45 percent fat.

The wheels of cheese turn snow-white after three weeks, each of them an original, each one different from the next, a delicate ivory color inside, generously creamy, each revealing its strength when tasted. One can still taste the sweetness of the cow's milk in the finished cheese, as its nutty flavor and mineral overtones waft across the tongue, dispensing the delicate flavors of wildflowers and ocean breezes.

It is a taste sensation that no industrial Camembert can deliver, that no cheese made from pasteurized, thermized and micro-filtered milk can provide. Compared with Durand's hand-made wheels of cheese, cheap supermarket products taste like doorstops. Only Camembert made with raw milk can contain the texture and character of the landscape where the cows graze, what the French call "terroir," a word that also conveys a sense of home. François Durand, who has been working with raw milk for the past 20 years, knows how many different variations exist. He knows how different cheese tastes if it is made in the summer or the spring, or during prolonged periods of rain or dry weather.

"Norman Camembert from treated milk," says Durand, "cannot exist. It's a contradiction." He is standing in his farm store, wearing a white rubber apron and rubber boots, a milky haze coating his glasses. During lunch, construction workers from the neighborhood come to his store to pick up one or two Camemberts to eat, but Durand has to disappoint them. His cheese is sold out and his storage rooms are empty. The same thing happens every day now. Now that the big producers have stopped making Camembert, the demand far outstrips the supply. Did he end up benefiting from the Camembert war? "It certainly didn't hurt me," says Durand, "but it did hurt others."

After Lactalis decided to get out of the raw milk Camembert business, sales plunged at Lepetit, its flagship operation, so much so that the once-proud cheese factory in Saint Maclou had to be shut down in September 2008. The French papers published major obituaries for the company, founded in 1884 by Auguste and Léontine Lepetit, whose products won 60 gold and silver medals during the 20th century at France's annual General Agricultural Competition (CGA).

'Vicious Polemics'

Lactalis spokesman Morelon should have known then that it was an unwinnable war, but he believed steadfastly in victory and continued to write his over-the-top press releases. "The violent nature of the attacks waged against us," he wrote,"has raised doubts among consumers and ruined the (Lepetit) brand." He failed to mention that the renunciation of raw milk could have led to the bankruptcy, and that the French people, his customers, were unwilling to support the company and did not believe its PR message. Morelon dismissed a Lepetit heir's comment that Lactalis had betrayed tradition and was now paying the price as "vicious polemics."

But Lactalis lost every battle in this war and Morelon lost the fight for the hearts and minds of customers, as the news coming in from all sides became steadily worse. The relevant government agencies reinforced the existing Camembert Charter, the media celebrated the victory of tradition, and in their stories they likened the dispute to the battles between Asterix and Rome, David and Goliath, local heroes and global players. Soon after that, serious scientific studies were released that declared raw milk Camembert to be safe in every respect, including hygiene.

At town festivals in Normandy, mayors and local celebrities publicly and demonstratively consumed the real Norman cheese, and within a short time clubs that had been formed to defend the raw milk tradition had collected 20,000 signatures. Restaurant chefs signed cheese petitions, the magazine Gourmet ran special stories about Camembert, and the small Camembert producers pooled their finances to hire a lawyer in Caen who, in 100 hours of work, wrote up a new set of bylaws for their association. They eventually managed to outvote Lactalis and Isigny, which combined had previously held the majority of votes, in the French cheesemakers' association.

Morelon became familiar with the military adage that those who must defend everything are able to defend nothing. During the interview in the Tour Montparnasse, when winter was at the door and he still believed in victory, he hid his wounds behind caustic humor and raged against the well-heeled Paris intellectuals, against the journalists who, he said, had no concept of normal life. "Our biggest mistake," Morelon said,"was to let the television stations in." Journalists from the France 3 television channel had visited Lactalis and a short time later a vicious documentary about the cheese war was aired. "I'm sure you know it," said Morelon," the old French chanson about the little ones fighting the big ones." With their backs against the wall, Lactalis and Morelon decided to switch from conventional war to guerrilla tactics. The company began testing their small competitors' products in its own laboratories to search for malicious bacteria. On Oct. 11, the Lactalis laboratory technicians found what they were looking for. Morelon issued a press release, as he had done in the past, to announce that Lactalis had "informed the authorities about bacteria found in the products of a competitor."

A Sore Loser

The report concerned some impurities found in a batch of 5,500 pieces of "Saint Loup" cheese. An independent test failed to confirm the Lactalis laboratory's findings, but the damage to the competitor's image had been done, and a new wound had been opened. Morelon called it an act of "self-defense," but in truth it was nothing but another lost battle. By then he was being attacked from all sides—in Normandy, in Paris and throughout France—as a denunciator. The attacks were filled with a sense of outrage over what citizens viewed as the moral decline of a sore loser.

"This is an outrageous case," says Bertrand Gillot, CEO of Fromagerie Réaux, founded in 1931 and located in the seaside town of Lessay. Gillot, a vigorous man in his late 60s, the scion of a famous Norman cheese dynasty, is wearing a light blue, V-neck sweater, and a tie covered with fox terriers. "The times are not what they used to be," he says. "In the past, great men were in charge at Lactalis, honest businessmen. Today financial brokers are at the helm, jugglers. It isn't pretty anymore."

The cheese war has brought his company, Réaux, 30-35 percent growth. Réaux now makes 20,000 cheeses a week, and an addition to the existing factory is almost complete. "Nevertheless, believe me when I tell you that I would prefer not to have waged this bitter fight," says Gillot. "The peace is gone. We were a family, and now we are enemies. I would like to have avoided this."

Gillot has experienced many a defensive battle over Camembert, and he has been on the winning side each time. In 1985, the upper house of the then West German parliament, the Bundesrat, rejected a bill at the last minute that would have banned the importation into Germany of any cheese made with raw milk. In 1989, after listeria bacteria had been found in Camembert, Great Britain and Japan considered imposing import bans, and in the early 1990s France's cheesemakers went into a panic when the northern member states of the European Union considered making pasteurization mandatory throughout the bloc. Raw milk prevailed each time, and with it Camembert. The cheese had already encountered more powerful enemies than Lactalis and Isigny.

Gillot takes us on a tour of the plant at Réaux, joined by his production manager, Marc Brunet, a friendly-looking man with a mustache, whose business cards are laminated in plastic because he spends so much of his time working in a warm, humid environment. In the cheese dairy, which is the size of two indoor gymnasiums, workers fill the molds and scoop the raw milk out of bulbous ladles. The work resembles that of farm producer Durand, except that 10 people are making cheese at the same time. In fact, this is a factory, only somewhat more charming than ordinary industrial production.

Lacked Sufficient Fighting Capacity

Behind a glass wall, the milk laboratory occupies a series of winding hallways. The laboratory has the appearance of a hospital, complete with instruments, steel cabinets and technical equipment. "Raw milk has become a science," says Brunet. "The constant analyses constitute 10 percent of our costs. And now imagine how much a company like Lactalis has to spend on this and how much it can save without raw milk."

During the course of 2008, Lactalis had to economize, lay off workers and close entire plants in its Camembert de Normandie division. But the damage to its image also jeopardized the company's market share for other brands and other varieties. Last winter, almost two years after the cheese war began, the company began to realize that it lacked sufficient fighting capacity, that it was losing the war, and that the little rebels out in Normandy were still in control. Two years after the war began, Morelon and the Lactalis management realized that it was time to figure out ways to make peace without losing face.

The local mini-war had turned into a "reputation risk" for global player Lactalis. It wasn't that the company was doing poorly. In fact, business is booming, as the company enjoys record sales figures and phenomenal fundamental data. It exports 70,000 tons of Brie a year, as well as 60,000 tons of soft cheese. But Lactalis needs the Normandy Camembert and its aura. The company needs to be able to fall back on the real and authentic, or risk losing credibility, tradition and soul. Culture, not money, is at stake here.

"The modern consumer has become more sensitive," Morelon said back when he st


Tim Cook's Reboot
LIMITED-TIME OFFER SUBSCRIBE NOW
 
blog comments powered by Disqus