A collapse in sales during the lockdown has left some of France's treasured AOP mark cheeses threatened with extinction if smaller, artisan producers cannot continue to do business.
With the closure of restaurants, markets and workplace canteens, the sales of AOP cheeses have fallen by 60 percent in the last two months, leaving many cheesemakers struggling to survive.
No-one quite knows how many varieties of cheese there are in France but it is more than 1,000 and some of the most loved – including roquefort, Brie de Meaux and saint-nectaire – are those with the AOP or IGP mark, signifying a protected geographical location or origin.
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The AOP and IGP cheeses make up around 15 percent of the French cheese market and support 18,000 milk producers and 350 processing plants. The sector had a €2.1 billion turnover in 2019.
Many are made by small producers working to tight margins, who have been devastated by the collapse in sales, particularly those who make fresh or soft cheeses which generally only have a shelf life of around eight weeks.
“Between March 15th and April 30th, the loss of turnover amounts to €157 million,” said Michel Lacoste, president of the artisan dairy products group Conseil national des appellations d'origine laitières and himself a farmer in the Cantal area.
“The situation is more than worrying. The risk is that the most exposed farmers and small businesses will fall by the wayside.
“If that happens, we will lose the cheese diversity of our terroirs.
“We have to save the France of 1,000 cheeses.”
Supermarkets and grocery stores of course remained open during the lockdown, but even these saw a fall in cheese sales as people rushed to stock up on basis and group apéros or family meals with a cheese platter ended.
Spring is usually peak cheese production time as lactation increases in sheep, goats and cows and with cheese sales collapsing some farmers have tried to switch to selling UHT milk or selling to larger cheese producers, but at least 2,000 tonnes of cheese were wasted, despite programmes to give away unsold cheese to hospitals, charities and food banks.
Depuis mi-mars, les éleveurs, petits producteurs, artisans & distributeurs de fromages #AOP-IGP traversent une crise sans précédent.
— AOP laitières_CNAOL (@AOPlaitieres) May 5, 2020
Cheese producers have launched an appeal with the hashtag #fromagisson calling for reopening workplaces to stock their canteens with cheese and – of course – consumers to buy AOP cheeses and support small producers.
Savoie farmer Patrick Pavy, who has partially switched to making the longer-lasting raclette cheese, told Le Parisien: “For the moment, we're still fighting.
“We've made a credit deferral with the bank. But with the cash flow discrepancies, it's going to tough in May and June.”