France's cheese controversy: raw or pasteurised?

As a nation renowned for its love of cheese, France is in a pickle over one of its favourite products, as Lee McLaughlan reports.

27 May 2020
France's cheese controversy: raw or pasteurised?France's cheese controversy: raw or pasteurised?
By Lee McLaughlan

Raw-milk cheeses have been removed from menus at schools and crèches because of the risk of food poisoning, particularly to under-fives. Advocates say the decision ignores the health benefits of raw milk for young people.

Popular lait cru cheeses produced using untreated milk from goats, sheep and cows – such as Reblochon, Roquefort, Brie, Morbier and certain Camemberts – have a higher risk of carrying pathogenic bacteria, such as salmonella, listeria and E.coli. This is because they are produced at lower temperatures than industrial pasteurised cheeses.

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What the professionals say

Following high-profile incidences of food poisoning in young children, food safety regulator Anses, the public health service Santé Publique France (SPF) and the Ministry of Agriculture and Food have warned of the risks of lait cru cheese to the young. Figures from SPF identify lait cru cheeses as the cause in 34% of salmonella epidemics, 37% of listeria cases, and 60% of E.coli. E.coli and salmonella poisoning can develop into haemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS – a condition that affects the blood and blood vessels), which can have fatal consequences. 

The Ministry of Agriculture and Food claims children under five are 110 times more at risk than adults. The figures are disputed by Véronique Richez-Lerouge, president and founder of the Association Fromages de Terroirs (AFT), an organisation that promotes the health benefits of lait cru cheese. She said: “The health author-ity focuses on lait cru cheeses but the main suppliers of HUS are minced beef (64%), human-to-human contact (25%), contact with farm animals (20%), and other types of food, such as sprouted seeds, which is the source of a Europe-wide epidemic. “Untreated milk and its derivatives are only 3%.” Cases of food poisoning are investigated by the SPF. 

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In February, it published a report of an E.coli food poisoning in 2018 in a group of 14 children aged under five. One child died and 12 more were hospitalised with HUS. The investigation found Reblochon cheese from a single source was the cause of 12 of the cases. The report’s authors noted: “This epidemic underscores the risk associated with the consumption of untreated milk cheeses, especially in young children, and the need to improve public awareness of these risks.” But, the AFT argues, public bodies are ignoring scientific evidence about the health benefits of the product, including lowering the potential for asthma, hay fever, and other inhaled and food allergies.

France's cheese controversy: raw or pasteurised?
France's cheese controversy: raw or pasteurised?

Benefits vs risks

The Pasture Project, an EU-backed investigation, looked at the risks and benefits for atopy – the genetic tendency to develop allergic diseases – while a separate Gabriela Study examined the protective benefits of farm milk. The study, from 2011, said: “Children exclusively drinking farm milk had significantly lower the odds for asthma and hay fever compared with children exclusively drinking shop milk. The findings suggest the protective effect of untreated milk consumption on asthma might be associated with the whey protein fraction of milk.”

Ms Richez-Lerouge added: “Untreated milk and lait cru cheese should be given as a priority to children under five years of age. Untreated milk is safe, and hygiene should not be confused with cleanliness. Furthermore, the Pasture Cohort study, involving 1,000 children aged up to 16, demonstrates the benefits of untreated milk for human health. Regular consumption of untreated milk from an early age, when the immune system is building up before the age of two, is beneficial."

“Consumption of untreated milk first, followed by lait cru cheese, reduces the risk of IgE-dependent allergic diseases and respiratory infections by 30% in the first year of life. Industrial cheeses are of no nutritional or taste benefit. They have drawbacks, including aggregated proteins, added calcium, added lactose, milk powder, and they are often fattier and too salty.”

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