Have you heard there’s a “looming crisis”? That some French cheeses are facing “extinction”?

Over the last month there have been media reports about camembert, brie, and blue cheese production being under “threat”.

“Say a prayer for Camembert,” demands the top line of one article.

Reportedly it is due to an over-reliance on the asexual strains of fungi that give these cheeses the smell, flavour, and texture we are familiar with.

But it is more complicated than the headlines — and rest assured, no one is going without cheese.

Industrialisation of cheesemaking

For centuries, cheesemaking and microbes have been inextricable.

It is the fungi and a collection of other microflora that are deliberately introduced to milk that gives cheese its unique flavour and texture.

However, to meet the demands of mass production and distribution, industrial cheesemaking is becoming more standardised.

For consistency, specially selected strains of fungi called Penicillium camemberti and Penicillium roqueforti are used to make camembert and blue cheeses.

The problem is these fungi populations have become increasingly less diverse.

“Some domesticated populations even constituted of only a single clonal lineage,” a paper by French researchers Jeanne Ropars and Tatiana Giraud has found.

Dairy-producing areas like Victoria’s Gippsland region are home to numerous specialty cheese makers.(ABC News: Zoe Ferguson)

Earlier this month the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNSR) also published an article citing the research, the source of the recent media reporting on the “camembert crisis”.

“Microorganisms are capable of both sexual and asexual reproduction, but the industry relied primarily on the asexual method, producing clonal lineages to perpetuate the moulds,” Ropars and Giraud conclude.

“As a result, they can no longer reproduce with other strains that could provide them with new genetic material — a situation that, over time, induces the degeneration of the strain in question.”

How much of a problem this is for commercial cheesemakers is unclear, but it does not mean that soft French cheeses made with these less-vigorous fungi strains will suddenly become “extinct”.

Other microflora can be used to make soft cheese, but the texture and flavour might not be what you have become used to.

Underappreciated cultures

Specialty cheesemakers are less likely to be affected by the lack of cheese culture diversity because they don’t make it on an industrial scale.(ABC Rural: Jennifer Nichols)

Dr Ian Powell is a microbiologist and cheese culture expert with over 40 years of experience working with the Australian dairy industry. 

He noted the concern about microbial diversity when it came to producing some soft cheeses, but said the scientific work to create modern cheese cultures was also a “microbiological miracle that is not widely appreciated”.

“It has allowed cheesemakers and consumers to enjoy cheese in greater quantities and with consistently high quality,” Dr Powell said.

He said the camembert story was a “special case”.

“The white fluffy fungus seems to be a rare variant, and its wild relatives are not so nice,” Dr Powell said.

“In truth, this is a very special organism to cheesemakers and culture suppliers. It is very important that it is not lost, and it won’t be.

“Experimental studies indicate that it might one day be possible to adapt wild Penicillium strains into strains appropriate for camembert production.”

Can’t we make our own?

Australia used to manufacture its own cheese cultures. The company was called Dairy Innovation Australia Ltd, or DIAL, but in 2015 it was sold to a Danish biotechnology company.

“The governments, in their wisdom in the past, decided we no longer needed to be involved in that sector,” said the chair of the Australian Specialist Cheesemaker Association (ASCA), Paul Wilson.

Mr Wilson, also a farmer and cheesemaker near Nimbin in northern New South Wales, said selecting microflora to make cheese had been evolving for centuries.

“[Cheesemakers] were never really very good at it so the degree of inbreeding was not that great,” he said.

“But with improvements in technology, driven by profit-seeking large companies, it seems that this is now becoming an issue.”

Paul Wilson and his partner Kerry make cheese on their dairy farm near Nimbin in northern New South Wales.(ABC Rural: Kim Honan)

Mr Wilson said that the “vigour” of some of the cheese fungi had reduced, but likened the issue to genetic selection in dairy cattle.

“My understanding is that the world’s dairy industry in now based on the genetics of only six ‘super bulls’ whose genes have been used to build high-producing dairy cows,” he said.

“The thing we know about genetics though is that even though these bulls produce cows that make huge amounts of milk, and the white moulds make very white cheese rinds, you can be sure they will have some weakness to something, somewhere, at some time.”

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