There's not been much coverage in France, but nonetheless our Quebec cousins are in the midst of a storm. Economic and especially hygienic. And it all started last autumn.
There was a listeriosis epidemic which led to more than 20 deaths. But whom to blame? Quebec's Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAPAQ) made a thorough investigation. And of course found listeria in raw milk cheeses from two artisan producers in Quebec. But also – and especially – in meat (see the Radio Canada article). (All websites in this report are in French)
Too late! Precautionary principles meant that several tons of cheese were destroyed at their producers, as well as at dairy shops, in a spectacular operation which naturally left its mark at the heart of the Quebec cheese food chain.
"In two hours, they threw away four years of my work" declared Nathalie Filion, of the Caseus & Cy boutique in Quebec, a well-known cheese merchant, quoted by a number of Canadian journalists. Including those from La Vie Agricole publication.
And they are talking more and more now about the "adolescent crisis" of the Quebecois raw milk business … a relatively new sector, which began at the beginning of the 90's and had its first run-in with the authorities in Ottawa in 1996, which had to give up the idea of banning its production, following pressure by liberal Congressmen throughout the country – subject to one condition : the imposition of a minimum 60 day maturing period.
I won't recount to you here the history of the Quebecois raw milk cheese operation as others have already done so. But here are some links offering interesting insights – Cyberpresse.ca, a video of a producer, P. Chaput and an article in the newspaper Le Devoir talking about the negative gastronomic effects of the restriction.
I recall having discussed this issue at a SIAL event in 1996 with the principal Quebecois importer of French cheeses, when we confirmed to him that listeria, a bacteria present in the environment and regularly found in milk and therefore also in raw milk cheese (it is eliminated by heating it) does not resist "long term" to the other bacteria present in raw milk. So there's no risk with cheese that's been matured at 60 days plus, which all goes to explain why a cheese can be found "positive" one day and "negative" when tested for a second time.
Also that the cheeses most at risk are those with a short maturation period, particularly young cheeses just put on sale. In other words, the older the cheese, the less listeria it has.
To finish this note, you should know that there is a group on Facebook called "No to the disappearance of Quebecois raw milk cheeses" and that there are many who protest against the fact that Canadian cheese makers are more strictly controlled by sanitary authorities than those cheeses imported in much greater quantities from European countries … a question of double standards, it would seem? See article in the Le Devoir newspaper.
But let's finish on an optimistic note: Let's go for "mithridatisation": Let's continue eating raw milk cheeses so that we don't fall sick, the next time we come into contact with pathogenic bacteria … let's allow our children to suck stones, to play in sand pits… have you noticed how sandpits have all but disappeared?
NB: I found out about this subject from the No. 1 edition of Cheese and Wine professional magazine (in French). Just clink on the link and you can receive this excellent publication!