These French Cheeses Are at Risk of Extinction

A lack of microbial diversity could eventually spell the end of cheeses like Camembert

Wheel of camembert cheese
Camembert and other French cheeses may eventually disappear. BSIP / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

French cheeses are in trouble.

Popular varieties like Camembert, brie and blue cheese are at risk of disappearing due to a collapse of microbial diversity, according to a statement from France’s National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).

Camembert, in particular, is “on the verge of extinction,” per CNRS. The soft, creamy cheese is made from cow’s milk and originated in Camembert, Normandy, in northern France.

It’s not only a delicious snack; it’s also a point of national pride.

“What’s the typical image of France? A bottle of red wine, a baguette and a Camembert,” says Anne-Marie Cantin, a cheesemonger who judges national Camembert competitions, to CNN’s Xiaofei Xu. “It’s our national cheese.”

Cheesemakers historically used several strains of a fungus called Penicillium biforme for Camembert. Since each strain was slightly different, each resulting cheese also had its own unique aroma, color and flavor.

About 100 years ago, cheesemakers began exclusively using a specific albino strain called Penicillium camemberti. As its popularity skyrocketed, it became “the gold standard for brie and Camembert,” reports Vox’s Benji Jones. Camembert, in turn, became totally uniform—and all the variation in aroma, color and flavor disappeared.

P. camemberti cannot reproduce sexually with other fungi, which means cheesemakers have had to clone it. Over time, however, this process caused mutations to develop in the strain’s genome. As a result, the strain lost its ability to produce asexual spores. This has made it difficult for the cheese industry to find enough P. camemberti spores to inoculate their Camembert.

“The food industry has exerted so much pressure on the selection of fungi that the microbial diversity among [industrially produced] cheeses has become extremely impoverished,” according to CNRS.

Other cheeses—including brie, gorgonzola and roquefort—face similar dangers. But it’s the risk of losing Camembert, in particular, that has many die-hard French cheese lovers worried.

“The news landed hard with my Norman husband,” writes Emma Beddington, a columnist for the Guardian. “He ran a full Kübler-Ross scale, from denial—‘C’est fake news, Camembert cannot die’—to depression: ‘It’s the end of the world.’ He hasn’t reached acceptance, yet, but is profoundly questioning his life’s purpose: ‘Should my new mission be to save Camembert?’ he messaged me this week.”

Camembert as we know it today may disappear eventually, though probably not any time soon, per CNN. In the long run, cheesemakers have a chance to save it, as long as consumers are willing to adapt.

“Cheese producers could simply inoculate cow’s milk with other P. biforme molds,” writes Vox. “P. biforme is closely related to the albino strain, though it might give the cheeses a slightly different look and aroma.”

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