Is All French Cheese Organic? Surprising Answers from the Land of 350 Fromages

french cheese

With most of our focus turned to local producers, it can be surprising to hear much being said about a product from across the sea. But regardless of the advances being made thanks to local cheesemakers in the States, there remains something to be said about quality when it comes to French cheese. Specifically, one question that may have you all shaking your heads: Is all French cheese, regardless of label, organic?

Before we get into answering that question, however, it’s important to explore the myriad cheese labels that exist, both in France and in the States — for it’s in these labels that we’ll find the answer to this very complex and surprising question.

Cheese Labels: Bio or Organic?

A true cheese aficionado should become familiar with the different cheese labels to help inform his or her purchases, the first and foremost being a distinction between bio, the French organic label, and certified organic in the States.

The Cheeses of Europe, a national campaign co-financed by the French Dairy Inter-Branch Organization (CNIEL) and the European Union to promote French cheeses on the U.S. market, has some interesting remarks vis à vis the difference between these two labels. “While France does not use the same designations as the American FDA, their own equivalent designation is called Biologique (“BIO”), which actually carries more weight than the American standard. In France, in order for a cheese to be considered “BIO,” it needs to come from dairy that is hormone and pesticide-free, as well as free-range. Many of the cheeses promoted via “The Cheeses of Europe” meet this “BIO” designation, while nearly all would qualify under American “organic” standards.”

In other words, the bio regulations are stricter than organic regulations, meaning that even cheeses that do not carry the bio label could be characterized as organic by FDA standards. Regardless of label, French cheese is purportedly more organic than American cheese.

In order to be certified bio, all French dairy must follow certain rules, most of which pertain to the health of the animals themselves. Dairy cows may not graze at more than two animals per hectare (2.47 acres); sheep and goats may graze at 13.3 animals per hectare. These animals must consume organic feed, which cannot be grown using chemical fertilizers, pesticides or any GMOs. Dry rations must come from dry materials, of which 60 percent must be roughage such as grass, beets and corn, though corn is somewhat discouraged because of GMOs.

It would appear that this is the main difference between bio and organic: while both have very strict regulations, the French label also has several “suggestions” that are taken to heart by many producers. For example, organic farmers are strongly encouraged to raise local breeds adapted to the local climate, a topic we’ll delve into further in just a bit. Antibiotics are strongly discouraged for organic farmers, but if their use becomes necessary, 3 treatments per year is the maximum, and the animal must then be isolated and the waiting period doubled.

Aside from this, however, most regulations in both certified organic and bio labels resemble one another quite closely. A recent (2007) change in USDA regulations allows up to 5 percent of non-organic ingredients in a certified organic cheese, providing that the ingredients not be available in organic form. This is also true in France, where micro-organisms like lactic ferments and vegetal ash for ashed goat cheeses, which cannot be certified organic, are added to the cheese. These products must also be certified non-GMO; this is also true for American organic regulations, which do not allow GMOs. Any additives to French cheese, like herbs for an herb-crusted goat cheese or alcohol for a washed rind cheese must be organic to be certified bio; while these additives are not seen nearly as much in American cheese production, if an organic alternative exists, it must be used for the cheese to carry the organic label.

All this being the case, bio cheese still represents a very negligible minority of cheese production in France: less than 0.5 percent. While this amount has been growing exponentially in recent years, doubling from 2007 to 2011 and continuing to increase ever since, bio is definitely more of a minority in France, as compared to the US at 5 percent.

All in all, there isn’t really all that much disparity between bio and organic — a few differences here and there, but enough to say that the French regulations are really that much stronger?

Not really. But our study doesn’t end here. Bio is far from the only label a French cheese can bear, and it’s in studying some of the alternative labels that could be attributed to a French cheese — and more often are — that we can find the real answer as to whether French cheese is “more organic.”

French Cheese Labels: Another Way to Define Cheese

French cheese, along with the bio label, can be sold under several other labels, two of which are perhaps even more telling to the French consumer. These labels are fermier and AOC.

Fermier is rather easy to define: this label, which translates to “farm,” is used for cheese that is not necessarily organic but is made from one herd directly at the farm. We might call cheese like this artisan, small producer or farm cheese in the States. Many of these producers opt out of organic certification, much like many small cheese producers throughout the States — from New York to the Southwest to Oregon — in order to focus more on animal welfare and quality than on the certification. While there are far more fermier producers in the States and the label is more regulated in France, the differences between this type of producer in France and Stateside is negligible.

The last of the labels is AOC, appellation d’origine controlée. This label is applied not only to cheeses in France but also to meats, fruits and vegetables, and wines. Each AOC label is associated with a region and has a number of different necessary characteristics that must be true of the product in question in order for it to wear the label — this is perhaps the most telling label of them all, as it associates cheesemaking with regional history and terroirAOC is the reason why Brie-style cheeses made in the States must be called Brie-style — AOC protects a name, thus ensuring that every time you buy an AOC Brie or AOC Camembert in France, you know it has followed the rules of the AOC.

Charles Duque is the Managing Director at CNIEL, one of the governing bodies of the new plan to promote imported French cheeses. He has a further idea about the quality of French cheeses that has nothing to do with a label, organic or otherwise, but more about their general quality. “I think European cheeses can be considered more all-natural than what we sometimes find in mass-market American cheeses,” he says. “Most are produced with high quality milk that comes from animals that are grass-fed and produce RSbT-free milk.  The entire process, from milk collection, to curdling, molding, salting and affinage is very controlled and sanitary.”

How to Define Quality When it Comes to Cheese

If you’ve got tons of labels and acronyms rattling around in your head right now, you’re not alone. From organic to bio to fermier to AOC, what it all boils down to is quality… right? We’re looking for a cheese that not only tastes good but that meets our expectations as far as certain characteristics of quality are concerned.

But how do we define “quality” when it comes to cheese? Is it in its organic nature, or does it stem from something else? For this, we turned to an expert.

Georges Carantino, a French food ethnologist specializing in cheese, weighs in on this debate, firstly by confirming what the facts seem to show: the interest in “organic” cheeses — be they FDA organic certified or Bio — is somewhat unfounded, at least in France.

“I kind of don’t care about bio,” he says. “You can get traditional flavors from a fermier cheese, for example, that unleashes a palette of very interesting flavors because the milk wasn’t pasteurized. There’s no reason to throw a party for bio, because there are bio products that aren’t necessarily all that interesting taste-wise, and there are others that aren’t bio but are made according to traditional techniques that are very interesting.”

Georges suggests a different definition of a quality cheese, locally produced cheeses that are made according to traditional techniques and that respect traditional savoir-faire… whether they’re organic or not. But once you enter into this line of thinking, the question becomes not, “which cheeses are of the highest quality?” but “how can we even define quality?”

“Is it bacteriological and sanitary quality?” Georges asks. “Taste quality? Patrimonial quality in the sense that we’ve valorizing a heritage? Is it ecological quality?”

According to Georges, it depends on who you’re talking to.

As far as the French are concerned, quality would be defined according to four of five quality types: patrimonial, gustative, social and ecological. Because — and here’s where French cheese might have something to teach to American — even non-organic cheesemakers have a responsibility to the environment.

“In other words, the cheese’s production is good for ecology or for the environment. That’s important when you’re talking about industrial cheeses.”

For an American or certain Northern European cheese fans, however, quality is first and foremost about hygiene, at least as far as Georges (and the FDA) are concerned. But Georges also highlights the dangers of this sort of idea and the reasons why French cheese fans do not ascribe to it. “We don’t see it in the same way at all,” he says. “We think really that there’s an ecology in the microbial populations, and if you’re very careful, the good bacteria will fight off the bad.”

“I have my reservations about the Anglo-Saxon obsession with hygiene at all costs, because we all know that when it’s too clean, that’s when the bad bacteria take hold, because there are no more microbe populations to fight against them.”

Instead, Georges highlights a “patrimonial” quality — cheeses made according to traditional savoir-faire. In France, that often means raw milk cheese, something that the FDA calls dangerous but that for Georges — and many traditional cheese-makers — just makes sense.

“All of the lactic ferments are already in raw milk. If you use pasteurized milk, you have to add those ferments and micro-organisms produced by the biological industry back to the milk.”

While not all cheeses made with raw milk are organic, there’s something to be said about this all-natural process. Of course, we know that all-natural doesn’t mean all that much, but there’s something to be said for a cheese that not only commits itself to ecological practices but also is made according to traditional methods with as few additives as possible.

While all French cheeses are decidedly not organic in the sense of the official certification, there’s something to be said about the “organic” nature, the natural, living organisms used to make this authentic, historic food. And that’s something that we all must admit has been mastered by the French.

Why to Import French Cheese

Even with all of this information at our fingertips, the question still must be asked: why import French cheese? Why not rely on the hundreds of small cheese-makers producing quality products in America?

For Georges, the answer is that elusive terroir. “As far as I know, there’s a pretty fierce debate between industrial mass production (in the States), where attention isn’t paid to terroir and milk is taken as a raw material that you can do with what you like.”

According to Charles, the answer might be in the sheer variety of European cheeses on offer. “Cheese is going through a renaissance in the States and we currently have a number of very good American cheesemakers making some excellent original and European-inspired cheeses,” he says.”European cheeses are very diverse and cater to all different types of tastes and can be found at a lower price point than American artisan cheeses. Most EU countries have been able to produce fine cheeses en masse while maintaining their integrity and high-quality.”

Indeed, while it’s important to support local producers, there is something to be said for the heritage of European cheesemaking in general and French cheese in particular.

“You could say that there’s a European model linked to historical traditions,” Georges says, “And you could say that these traditions might have a certain prestige with regards to more industrial, unhistorical American traditions.”

The youth of our country and our cheese-making industry may just not be enough for forging the centuries-old traditions of terroir that have been propelling French cheesemaking for generations.

But the truth remains: the cheeses that can be imported into the States, according to FDA regulations, are not small fermier cheeses. They’re industrially made cheeses which, according to Georges, just means you have to shop with care.

“Industrial production in France is very, very heterogeneous,” he says. “There are large-scale productions that, in my opinion, are perfect as far as hygiene is concerned but that aren’t at all interesting from a taste standpoint. But there are industrial productions as well that, even using pasteurized milk, are quite successfully made.”

Many industrial cheeses enter into the AOC regulations and labels. Some are even organic or bio. But by now you’ve realized — organic in France is a whole different ball game. When choosing imported French cheeses, do your research on the individual cheese-maker; you might just discover its story and its history instead of allowing it to hide behind a label.

Related on EcoSalon

Food History: Roquefort and the World of Blue Cheese

Celebrate Summer with Cheese: The Surprising, Seasonal Food

Best Artisan Cheeses: 5 Professionals Weigh in on Their Favorites

Cheese image via Shutterstock: Sarah2

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Emily Monaco

Emily Monaco is an American food and culture writer based in Paris. She loves uncovering the stories behind ingredients and exposing the face of our food system, so that consumers can make educated choices. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Vice Munchies, and Serious Eats.