PARIS, DEC. 15 -- After surviving stormy political controversies in recent months involving Iran, social security and nuclear missiles, France has fallen victim to a cheese crisis.
Anything to do with cheese is serious here. But this does not concern just any old cheese. At stake is nothing less than vacherin, a winter cheese that in France inspires a devotion as extreme as that of Texans for chili.
Made from cow's milk in the Jura mountains on both sides of the French-Swiss border, vacherin is expensive and sticky and has become fashionable over the last two decades on fancy holiday dinner tables. Many Frenchmen feel there is nothing like putting out an 18-inch wheel of vacherin -- pronounced vasheRAN -- at the end of a festive meal and inviting guests to spoon the creamy white cheese, with its consistency of honey and vaguely bitter taste.
But this season has been spoiled by Swiss health inspectors. They found that Mont-d'Or vacherin from the Swiss canton of Vaud, said to be the world's best, could carry a harmful Listeria bacteria on its crust. Listeria can produce listeriosis, which makes people susceptible to such potentially fatal diseases as meningitis. Swiss authorities forbade further sales of vacherin and French authorities pulled it off the market.
Up to 200 tons that already had been produced were destroyed on orders from officials in Bern, who said they acted after up to 10 persons fell ill. Farmers in the 50 villages of the Joux Valley were enjoined from making or exporting any more vacherin this year pending further tests.
"One of the best cheeses in the world has been condemned for homicide," lamented Gerard Dupuy in the Paris daily Liberation. "One does not know whether to be happy at seeing public health so well defended or to be sad at realizing that, because of one little absent cheese, the world becomes a little bit more morose."
The exact reason Listeria bacteria have cropped up on Swiss vacherin is still under investigation. But the French, who often judge themselves helplessly chaotic next to their well-ordered neighbors, have an idea.
"More than a contamination of the milk, it seems the presence of germs in Swiss vacherin is the result of lack of respect for elementary rules of hygiene in cheese production," clucked the Paris newspaper Le Monde. "This is a surprising fact when one knows the famous Swiss reputation for hygiene and cleanliness."
National pride entered the picture in part because French production of vacherin, about 1,000 tons a season, reaches about the same volume as Swiss production, but enjoys less prestige.
French health authorities have certified their cheese as harmless. Agriculture Ministry experts who regularly test the French vacherin found no problems in the latest test Dec. 1, according to Francois Petite, president of the Interprofessional Syndicate of French Mont-d'Or.
But any vacherin lover knows the Swiss variety is the real thing, even though it costs an average of $20 a cheese. Raymonde Landreau, who with her husband runs the Cheese Palace in Paris, said she is still selling the slightly less expensive French vacherin, but in small amounts because most of her customers, being real cheese lovers, traditionally have bought the Swiss.
"You have to be a connoisseur to really know the difference, or you have to taste the two cheeses side by side," she said. "But in a shop like this, people like to buy the Swiss vacherin."
French producers have complained that the trouble with Swiss vacherin has unjustifiably spilled over the border onto their product, cutting back French sales as well. Bernard Michel, of the Regional Products Committee in Franche Comte, estimated the 600 or 700 familes making vacherin on the French side of the border will see a decline of at least 20 percent of their annual sales.
Claude Philippe, a French farmer who makes vacherin, told a Paris news conference he has stopped making the cheese altogether this year. Ordinarily, he said he produces about 120 tons in the September-to-February season.