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France's Fromage Fatale

Two deadly cases of food poisoning have been linked to raw milk cheeses.


PARIS — Something is rotten in the French cheese industry, so rotten that even the country's most popular cheese, the hockey puck-shaped Camembert, has been smeared by scandal.

Early this year, cheese contaminated with the bacterium Listeria monocytogenes killed two people in France, threatening the time-honored Gallic tradition of making cheese from unpasteurized milk. The resulting hubbub in the French media, and even judiciously phrased consumer warnings from the Agriculture Ministry, have stirred up what one Paris newspaper called listeria hysteria.

The worries began in January, when a 30-year-old resident of the Paris region and a pregnant woman consumed a raw-milk cheese called Epoisses, a creamy and aromatic specialty of Burgundy. The woman from Paris died; the mother survived, but her baby, just delivered, died.

Health authorities immediately closed down the factory producing the suspect cheese, Fromagerie d'Epoisses-Fromagers d'Armancon.

France's cheese producers and merchants say the affair has been blown out of proportion. Some even claim the U.S. dairy lobby at the European Union has exploited the tragic events to force consumers to eat only cheese made from pasteurized milk.

"This is an American conspiracy to kill our raw-milk cheese and create a pasteurized cheese monopoly!" exploded Nicole Barthelemy at her cheese shop on Paris' Left Bank, where she claims the French presidential and prime ministerial palaces among her clientele. "We won't let it happen," she vowed.

"Our French heritage is at stake," interjected one of Barthelemy's employees.

Added a customer who was listening in, "I am ready to demonstrate if necessary!"

To the French, cheese is a hot-button issue that arouses deep-seated feelings about tradition, quality of life and the cherished right to be different. Some French see this as a slippery slope: If their favorite cheese is abolished, they reason, they'll end up being forced to eat only American-style fast food.

France boasts at least 350 kinds of fromages, more than half made from unpasteurized milk. Since the listeria deaths, inspections of raw-milk cheeses have increased, and nine brands have been removed from store shelves. More than 25,000 small wheels of two brands of Camembert have been taken off the market.

"We are conducting more and more checks, so we find more and more violations," Agriculture Minister Jean Glavany told a Paris radio station. "We are in a situation where almost every day we find a new case of contamination, yet we must treat the question calmly."

The stakes are great. Since the two deaths, sales of Epoisses have plummeted by 60%.

"People ask us about the origin of our Epoisses. If they are still anxious, they turn to other cheeses," said Henri Voy, another Paris cheese dealer, whose shop near the Madeleine is close to the Right Bank's best-known gourmet grocery stores, Fauchon and Hediard.

"Eighty percent of our sales are based upon unpasteurized cheese," he said. "If it should be banned, we would lose more than 80% of our profits."

On health grounds, many Northern European countries already insist that cheeses sold in their markets be made from pasteurized milk. To the Latin way of thinking, though, this is a scandalous flouting of tradition with no basis in science. No uncooked food product, the French cheese trade points out, can be guaranteed listeria-free.

Hygiene regulations in the 15-nation European Union, which have grown tougher over the years, now stipulate that raw-milk cheeses must be thrown out if inspectors at the factory find bacterial contamination in a 25-gram sample, about an ounce. Because the bacteria multiply when the temperature rises above 39 degrees, cheese must also be checked when it goes on sale.

"The consumer has never been so well-protected," Barthelemy contends. "Our syndicat [the Paris regional cheese merchants association] alerts us immediately when a batch is suspected of contamination, and we get rid of it in a second."

Listeria monocytogenes was discovered in the 1920s. It can be found in raw vegetables, poultry, seafood and raw-milk products. Typically, most people consume listeria-contaminated food with no ill effects. But for the very elderly, people with depressed immune systems and pregnant women, it can be dangerous, even fatal, if untreated.

It's an international problem. In a recent outbreak in the United States, at least 11 people died after eating listeria-tainted pork. The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta says 1,850 cases of listeria contamination are recorded each year in the United States, 425 of which are fatal.

"Listeria is everywhere," Barthelemy says. "It is in the ground, in your fridge, in the air you breathe, on your salad."

In France, thanks to stricter regulations and frequent inspections, the number of people who get sick from listeria has been reduced by two-thirds in 10 years--to 225 in 1997.

But to reassure the public, exposed to months of alarmed coverage by the media, trade associations of cheese merchants in the Paris region and elsewhere now plan to publish a brochure explaining what listeria is, and identifying the relatively small social groups that should be concerned.

Meanwhile, passions kindled by the affair rage unabated. France's national association of cheese producers has accused competitors of the now-closed Epoisses plant of waging "a large-scale defamation campaign" to grab market share.

At her Left Bank cheese shop, Barthelemy offered an even more sinister explanation for the scandal: "The Americans are doing this to distract us from what they're doing in Yugoslavia."

Sicakyuz is an intern in The Times' Paris bureau.

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