Traditional Roquefort and Camembert are under threat, warn scientists

Cheese-lovers told they must learn to appreciate more diversity of tastes, colours and textures, sometimes within the same product to protect the cheeses’ future

A view of a piece of Roquefort from above on a cheeseboard with a cheese knife
Iconic cheeses Roquefort and Camembert are under threat due to decreased diversity of fungi, researchers have warned
Published Last updated

Classic French cheeses Roquefort and Camembert could be at risk of ‘extinction’ due to increased ‘standardisation’ in production norms, a new scientific study has found.

The food and farming industry - including the AOC standards - is putting too much pressure on the production of these types of cheeses, the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) said in a report on January 10.

Roquefort was the first cheese to be awarded the AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée) label, in 1925, and is still only allowed to be labelled as such if it is matured in the cellars near Roquefort-sur-Soulzon (southern Aveyron, Occitanie).

This means that a few giant manufacturers now have an almost-monopoly on producing the cheese, which has in turn decreased the “diversity of the microorganisms” in the fungi used to mature the produce, the CNRS states.

This is due to the “standardisation” of production, it adds.

#CNRSleJournal Les fromages hébergent une multitude de micro-organismes capables de transformer le lait. Sélectionnés par l’humain, ces ferments ne sont pas épargnés par les standards de l’industrie agro-alimentaire, au point que les fromages bleus ou ...

— CNRS (@CNRS) January 10, 2024

For example, in Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, Lactalis accounts for more than 50% of the Roquefort AOC (in particular, the Roquefort Société brand). There are some smaller producers still - including Maison Carles and Maison Gabriel Coulet - it notes but these are becoming less and less common.

“The agri-food sector has exerted so much selection pressure on fungi that cheeses that are not farmhouse cheeses and not protected by the AOP now have an extremely poor diversity of microorganisms,” said researcher Dr Jeanne Ropars in the report.

Disappearing fungi strains

"To date, only four populations of the P. roqueforti mushroom species [the fungus used in the cheese’s maturation process] are known in the world,” she said.

Dr Ropars - along Dr Tatiana Giraud and their team at the laboratoire Écologie, Systématique et Évolution in Gif-sur-Yvette (Essonne, Île-de-France) - has sequenced the genome of the microorganism used in fermenting Termignon blue cheese.

Of the two domesticated populations of the microorganism, one is used by AOC producers, and the second type is used by everyone else, the team said. These microorganisms are selected by humans, but farming standards could threaten them, especially the non-AOC products, it explained.

This is because farming standards require cheese to be attractive, taste good, not be confusingly coloured, not produce mycotoxins (the toxins secreted by fungi), and above all mature quickly, the CNRS states.

Dr Ropars explained that every time producers select organisms, “their genetic diversity has to be drastically reduced…[and] producers didn’t realise that they had selected a single individual and that this wasn’t sustainable in the long-term”.

Camembert also close to extinction

The same problem is also affecting other French blue cheeses, and other soft cheeses such as Camembert, the CNRS warns, as many smaller producers get their spores directly from major producers.

The bacteria used for Camembert, Penicillium camemberti, is “on the point of extinction”, the study said, with the same strain having been selected way back in 1898 for Brie, and then Camembert.

This is partly because producers have historically favoured white bacteria (albino P. camemberti) so as to achieve the distinctive white rind, in contrast to other grey, green, or orange-y bacteria.

This means that the strain - having been used for generation after generation of production - is losing its ability to reproduce, massively reducing its availability. Yet, the Camembert AOC guidelines state that only this bacteria may be used in the cheese’s production, threatening it further.

The strain of bacteria currently used by Roquefort AOC producers still has “a little more diversity”, however, the researchers said.

Genome editing: A possible solution?

In a bid to prevent the strains from disappearing, the research team at the CNRS is working on plans to help supply producers with slightly modified strains that would enable them to continue work, perhaps with the help of genome editing.

“Producers sometimes contact us to find out whether it would be possible to modify a gene,” said Dr Giraud. Another possible type of bacteria that could replace P. camemberti, is Penicillium biforme, as this is naturally present in raw milk. However, this could change the taste or colour somewhat.

“If cheese lovers want to continue eating cheese, they will have to learn to appreciate the diversity of tastes, colours and textures, sometimes within the same product,” said Dr Giraud.

In 2022, sales of Roquefort dropped by 6% year-on-year, said a study by the l'Institut national de l'origine et de la qualité.

Related articles

Producers stoic as French cheeses fail to make new global top 10 list
Camembert, Roquefort, Brie: Can I bring French cheeses into the US?
Camembert losing out in battle for France’s favourite cheeses