Lactalis closes Leptit plant, a victory for raw milk

Lactalis closes the Lepetit plant, a victory for raw milk

Small producers, advocacy groups and the media, including "Marianne", got the better of the Besnier empire. Abandoned by consumers demanding AOC status, fake Camembert bit the dust.

When it's filled with raw milk, sometimes the pot de terre wins out over the port de fer. Since March 2007, a dispute has pitted the defenders of genuine Camembert de Normandie against Lactalis (Besnier). The latter demanded that Inao (Institut national des appellations d'origine) authorize the heating or micro-filtration of milk in the manufacture of cheeses benefiting from the appellation d'origine controlée. After eighteen months, the Besnier empire was totally defeated. Not only did the government, by ministerial decree, confirm the obligation to use only raw milk for Camembert de Normandie AOC, but, due to a drop in sales of the Lepetit brand (-25% according to our information, this figure not confirmed by the manufacturer), Lactalis was forced to close the Saint-Maclou plant in Calvados. Founded in 1890 by Auguste Lepetit, the production site for Normandy's most famous camembert was acquired by the Besnier group in 1978, and in just a few years, along with Lanquetot, became France's leading AOC camembert production facility.

The announcement of the closure of his family's historic factory hardly moves Philippe Lepetit:"Saint-Maclou didn't die in September 2008, but twenty-five years ago, when Michel Besnier replaced hand-molding with a robot to make 80,000 Camemberts a day. This factory was just an industrial machine condemned to churn out round, white cheeses." The descendant of the Lepetit dynasty doesn't have words harsh enough to condemn the destructive strategy of Lactalis, which got rid of raw milk on the pretext of health, hoping to obtain from the Inao the right to use finished milk in order to reduce production costs, while retaining the AOC label. Not only did the public body, chaired by Jean-Charles Arnaud, not give in to the blackmail, but the small producers of raw-milk Camemberts, backed by a movement ranging from associations defending the terroir to certain media, including Marianne, organized a counter-offensive. "The violence of the attacks against us has sown doubt in the minds of a number of consumers", said Luc Morelon, Lactalis Communications Director. Our magazine is proud to have played an active part in this fight to safeguard France's cheese heritage. We can only rejoice at the outcome, even if we regret the closure of the Lepetit plant (Lactalis management assures us that all 93 jobs will be preserved), where consumers have remembered that the label is not the cheese.

It all began in 1998, when the author of these lines and his colleague Périco Légasse co-authored an article in Marianne entitled "Non, les fromages au lait cru ne tuent pas" (" No, raw-milk cheeses don't kill."). Faced with repeated attacks from the agri-food lobby, we set the record straight. At the time, we had no idea that Besnier, the world's leading producer of AOC raw-milk cheeses, would one day discredit a product that had made it famous, with the sole aim of increasing its profits. A sad reflection of bad liberalism. Ten years later, and after several months of bitter conflict, David, embodying the defenders of raw milk, overcame Goliath, a global industrial giant whose economic (and political) power suggested he would have the last word. Few of our colleagues joined us. As for the cheese-makers, with the exception of Alain Dubois in Paris and Philippe Olivier in Boulogne-sur-Mer, there were few to take up the cause. The turning point came on December 26, 2007, when France 3 broadcast a prime-time documentary entitled "Ces fromages qu'on assassine", with which our collaborators were associated. Overcoming pressure, the program had an immediate effect. In just a few months, as public authorities became aware of what was at stake, sales of Lepetit and Lanquetot industrial cheeses plummeted. At the same time, sales of real raw-milk Camemberts from Normandy (Réo, Gillot, Saint-loup, Graindorge) soared (+35%). Which goes to show that, provided they're informed and warned, consumers know how to rebel. After all, raw-milk Camembert is a small portion of the Republic.

Directed by Marianne

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