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Drug-tainted horsemeat in the food chain: France

The French government on Saturday confirmed that it is likely that horsemeat tainted with a potentially harmful drug is likely to have entered the food chain, adding to concerns over food safety across Europe.

Drug-tainted horsemeat in the food chain: France

A spokesman for the French agriculture ministry told AFP several horse carcasses containing the drug Phenylbutazone have probably ended up being eaten by consumers.

Phenylbutazone is an anti-inflammatory treatment for horses which is potentially harmful to humans and by law is supposed to be kept off of plates.

Britain alerted Paris that six tainted carcasses had been exported to France in January, but the meat had already been processed by the time the warning came.

Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll said that although some of the meat had been recalled, the equivalent of three carcasses had "probably" made it to consumers, but added there was "no health risk" since the traces of phenylbutazone found in the meat were "extremely weak".

The minister underscored that the find was in no way connected with the wider horsemeat scandal however, since the meat had not been disguised as beef.

But the announcement still added a new dimension to the scandal over mislabelled meat that erupted in Europe in January after horsemeat was initially found in so-called beef ready-made meals and burgers in Britain and Ireland.

Since then, supermarkets across the continent have pulled prepared meals from their shelves, with effects felt as far away as Hong Kong, where an imported brand of lasagne has been withdrawn from stores.

On Saturday, Italy joined the long list of countries that have been hit by the fraud, reporting its first case of horsemeat-contaminated lasagne.

The horsemeat was found in tests on six tonnes of mincemeat and 2,400 "lasagne bolognese" packages produced by a central Italian company that had used meat from suppliers based in the northern part of the country.

The tests were carried out as part of sweeping checks by police on 121 brands across the country.

French President Francois Hollande said on Saturday that he would push for mandatory labelling of meat in ready-made meals.

"I want there to eventually be mandatory labels on the meat contained in prepared meals," Hollande said while visiting an agricultural show in Paris.

"Until then, I will support… all initiatives for voluntary labelling" so that "consumers know the origin of the products they are consuming, especially meat."

French firm Spanghero has been at the heart of the scandal after it allegedly passed off 750 tonnes of horsemeat as beef, with the product eventually finding its way into 4.5 million "beef" products sold across Europe.

French authorities had initially suspended the company's sanitary license, but following protests from 300-odd workers allowed the company to resume production of minced meat, sausages and ready-to-eat meals.

The company was banned, however, from stocking frozen meat.

In Ireland, authorities on Friday suspended production at a meat processing plant after investigators found it was selling horsemeat labelled as beef.

B&F Meats, a small company licenced to debone beef and horsemeat in Carrick-on-Suir in County Tipperary, was found to be sending horsemeat to a customer in the Czech Republic, the Irish agriculture ministry said in a statement.

The label in the Czech language refers to beef, it added.

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Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

One thing everyone can agree on is that France has a lot of cheese - but exactly how many French fromages exist?

Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

Question: I often see a quote from Charles de Gaulle talking about ‘246 different types of cheese’, but other articles say there are 600 or even 1,000 different types of cheese and some people say there are just eight types – how many different cheeses are there in France?

A great question on a subject dear to French hearts – cheese.

But it’s one that doesn’t have a simple answer.

Charles de Gaulle did indeed famously say “How can anyone govern a country with 246 different types of cheese”, but even in 1962 when he uttered the exasperated phrase, it was probably an under-estimate.

READ ALSO 7 tips for buying cheese in France

The issue is how you define ‘different’ types of cheese, and unsurprisingly France has a complicated system for designating cheeses.

Let’s start with the eight – there are indeed eight cheese ‘families’ and all of France’s many cheeses can be categorised as one of;

  • Fresh cheese, such as cottage cheese or the soft white fromage blanc
  • Soft ripened cheese, such as Camembert or Brie
  • Soft ripened cheese with a washed rind, such as l’Epoisses or Pont l’Eveque
  • Unpasturised hard cheese such as Reblochon or saint Nectaire
  • Pasturised hard cheese such as Emmental or Comté
  • Blue cheese such as Roquefort 
  • Goat’s cheese
  • Melted or mixed cheese such as Cancaillot

But there are lots of different types of, for example, goat’s cheese.

And here’s where it gets complicated, for two reasons.

The first is that new varieties of cheese are constantly being invented by enterprising cheesemakers (including some which come about by accident, such as le confiné which was created in 2020).

The second is about labelling, geography and protected status.

France operates a system known as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC or its European equivalent AOP) to designate food products that can only be made in a certain area.

As cheese is an artisan product, quite a lot of different cheese are covered by this – for example a blue sheep’s milk cheese is only Roquefort if it’s been aged in the caves in the village of Roquefort.

There are 63 listed AOC cheeses in France, but many more varieties that don’t have this protected status.

These include generic cheese types such as BabyBel and other cheeses that are foreign in origin but made in France (such as Emmental).

But sometimes there are both AOC and non-AOC versions of a single cheese – a good example of this is Camembert.

AOC Camembert must be made in Normandy by farmers who have to abide by strict rules covering location, milk type and even what their cows eat.

Factory-produced Camembert, however, doesn’t stick to these rules and therefore doesn’t have the AOC label. Is it therefore the same cheese? They’re both called Camembert but the artisan producers of Normandy will tell you – at some length if you let them – that their product is a totally different thing to the mass-produced offering.

There are also examples of local cheeses that are made to essentially the same recipe but have different names depending on where they are produced – sometimes even being on opposite sides of the same Alpine valley is enough to make it two nominally different cheeses.

All of which is to say that guessing is difficult!

Most estimates range from between 600 to 1,600, with cheese experts generally saying there are about 1,000 different varieties. 

So bonne dégustation!

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