The Future of PDO in the Hands of Giants?

“Let’s not beat around the bush: denominations of origin are no longer a mark of quality.” So begins Véronique Richez-Lerouge’s investigative book, Main basse sur les fromages AOP. Comment les multinationales contrôlent nos appelations, and the subsequent pages are no less trenchant.

The future of PDOs was debated by producers, political decision-makers, EU representatives and of course Véronique Richez-Lerouge today at the CRB Auditorium, where they gathered for the conference “The Future of PDO in the Hands of Giants?”

The discussion was moderated by Irish journalist Rose O’Donovan, an expert in food industry topics and editor of Agra Facts, a leading European press agency in the field.

Véronique’s subject is the buying up of historic French PDO cheese producers by multinationals. France has the second-highest number of PDO cheeses in Europe, with 45 products protected. But two-thirds of all cheeses protected by denominations of origin are now made by giants like Lactalis, which began its acquisition campaign back in 1978, or Sodiaal, Eurial and others.

Why should this worry us? After all, producing a PDO means respecting a very precise set of specifications. To make Cantal, Lactalis has to follow the same rules as any Auvergne ferme, and if they do, INAO, the agency responsible for controlling the appellations d’origine protégée, has no objections.

But according to Richez-Lerouge, it’s not that simple. The shift from the skilled hands of artisan cheesemakers, who for generations have shaped the story of cheese in France, to the food technologists employed by major groups has not been painless.

Leaving aside for a moment the social, environmental, economic and commercial implications, which are enormous, ultimately what we have seen is a decline in the quality of PDO cheeses. These claims of Richez-Lerouge are explosive. “Certainly,” she says, “there are still many cheeses able to inspire an emotional response, but the majority can no longer be considered unforgettable experiences. Their aromas have become less complex, their flavors more banal and standardized. This has been confirmed by comparative tastings carried out by experts.”

The concentration of production is not a purely French phenomenon, but it is affecting the whole world. In the last ten years, the number of livestock farms has fallen drastically, while the number of animals per farm is on the rise. Fed a diet based on soy and corn silage, often deprived of adequate space and outdoor grazing, these animals produce a milk with no link to its place of origin, all too often pasteurized (only 39% of PDO specifications demand the use of raw milk). The animals being farmed are no longer the hardy, local breeds, but almost always the hyper-productive ones. Lastly, the production processes are facilitated and simplified by additives and selected starter cultures, while the aging is shortened and takes place in refrigerated rooms.

All of this also happens in countries where multinationals do not have as big a role as they do in France. In Italy, Lactalis has acquired Parmalat, and owns the brands Galbani, Invernizzi and Locatelli. Currently it controls around 9% of the country’s milk, but it produces only one PDO, Montasio, thanks to the purchase at the end of 2015 of Latterie Friulane. Who knows, maybe it’s just a question of time before Italy catches up…

The market for Italian PDO cheeses (which represent 50% of the country’s total cheese production) is actually constantly growing, thanks primarily to Mozzarella di Bufala Campana, Parmigiano Reggiano, Grana Padano and Gorgonzola. Italy is fourth in the world for cheese exports, after Germany, the Netherlands and France, and figures have doubled in the last ten years thanks in particular to high-quality cheeses.

Could the attack by the “giants” not just on American-style cheese slices and fresh cheeses but also on Camembert, Cantal, Munster and so on prefigure a similar acquisition campaign in Italy too?
And what will happen in Eastern European countries, where the herders and small-scale producers who survived the Soviet era are finding themselves trapped between the EU’s strict hygiene rules and the buy-out offers from businesses keen to exploit favorable economic and social conditions?

The European law that underpins the PDO system was designed to recognize the value of food heritage, starting from the assumption that a product’s identity was linked to three things: terroir, history and a traditional production technique. These elements are indispensable for determining quality and belonging and for ensuring a traditional product is unmistakable and protectable. Is this still the case? Is it still possible, if it ever was, to keep small-scale fermiers, big cooperatives and, now, multinationals, together with a single production protocol?

Can the quantities being produced be doubled or quadrupled without consequences for the end quality? Can processes be rationalized and simplified without compromising the final identity of a cheese?

If, as the large operators claim, it is essential to be big in order to survive in the market, should we be preparing to archive the great cheesemaking traditions as little more than memories of a lost world?

Every artisan who has to shut up shop is interrupting a centuries-old process of knowledge transmission, sounding a death knell for the biodiversity and gastronomic culture of a community.

It should be said that a small, artisanal scale does not automatically guarantee quality: Artisans who use selected starter cultures are putting themselves on the same level as industrial production. But this topic takes us down another path, one which will be explored further in other conferences.

Raffaella Ponzio

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