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How ‘3,000 tonnes of tuberculosis infected beef’ ends up on plates in France each year

The French public were shocked to learn this week that each year 3,000 tonnes of meat from cows contaminated with tuberculosis ends up on supermarket shelves. The government insists there is nothing to worry about.

How '3,000 tonnes of tuberculosis infected beef' ends up on plates in France each year
Photo: AFP
Some 8,000 cows infected with tuberculosis are slaughtered each year in France.
 
Most of the meat from those cows, some 3,000 tonnes ends up on consumers' plates without them having any idea that they are eating part of an infected animal.
 
The revelations were published by France's Canard Enchainé newspaper.
 
And although they sound alarming there is nothing in fact illegal about the practice and the French government has been eager to play down fears.
 
Food standards authorities in France and indeed in the EU insist that as long as the specific infected parts of the animal are removed in the slaughtering process then the rest of the cow is safe to eat and there is no risk of infection being transferred to humans.
 
France's Direction Generale de l'alimentation stressed that “in the last 30 years in France no one has caught tuberculosis by eating beef.” 
 
In France when cows test positive for tuberculosis there is a strict procedure that follows.
 
The animal is sent to the abattoir. A vet will then examine the carcass and judge whether the meat is safe to eat. If tuberculosis lesions are found to be only in certain “localised” areas then those parts of the carcass are removed and the rest is sold for meat.
 
Only in the cases where tuberculosis is found to be “generalized” is there considered to be a risk of contamination and the cow cannot be sold for meat.
 
Nevertheless there is no zero-risk when it comes to the possibility of people being infected.
 
And while beef eaters might have no need to worry, the same cannot be said for those who work in farming.
 
The Canard Enchainé claims there are around 50 cases each year in France of humans being contaminated by tuberculosis from animals, notably cattle breeders, vets and people who drink unpasteurized milk.
 
There were similar alarm bells ringing in France when it emerged British beef infected with tuberculosis was being transported across the channel and sold in French supermarkets.
 
It emerged that many supermarkets and fast food chains like Burger King and McDonald's refused to buy the meat, Le Figaro reported.
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FOOD & DRINK

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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