Famed French Cheese Can Still Be Packaged in Wood

The European Union will exempt Camembert from new food packaging standards.

Camembert on sale in a Ville d'Avray cheese shop outside Paris, Nov. 21, 2023.
Camembert on sale in a Ville d'Avray cheese shop outside Paris, Nov. 21, 2023.
AP Photo/Christophe Ena

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union has long known that the way to France's heart is through its stomach. So, don't touch the Camembert — never, ever.

On Wednesday, legislators at the European Parliament made sure it won't happen anytime soon.

Tucked in a proposal on streamlining and optimizing waste management throughout the 27-nation bloc, some French cheese producers in recent weeks sniffed out something and turned it into a culinary stink.

They claimed that the proposal's wording would make it illegal for the famous cheese to be cradled into its usual wooden packaging for its final weeks of ripening and, eventually, sale. The round box is as essentially Camembert as its unctuous texture and pungent smell.

Suddenly, there was a frenzied flutter that something fundamentally French would fall foul of the Brussels bureaucrats — derisively known by many as Eurocrats — who are all too often blamed for flaws real and false.

"It is a matter of common sense. Don't touch our Camemberts!" said Jean-Paul Garraud, a member of the European Parliament for France's far-right Rassemblement National.

The reasoning was this: If Camembert were forced into something easier to recycle like plastic, the perfect breathing of the cheese through wood might instead produce something sweaty and flabby. Wood, however, is hard to recycle sustainably, and the EU wants to remove it from food packaging as much as possible.

Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius said ahead of Wednesday's vote that the EU would make sure that the raw-milk specialized non-industrial Camemberts — those with a controlled designation of origin — will be exempt from any such regulation.

Even Gen. Charles de Gaulle, the French World War II hero and later president of the nation, knew all about such gourmet sensitivities. "How do you want to run a country that has 246 kinds of cheese," he was quoted as complaining.

Wednesday's action proved that cheese can be an effective binding agent, as European legislators ranging from free-trade liberals to the far-right made sure that an amendment to allow wooden boxes in case of exceptional circumstances would survive.

"We have saved our Camemberts," said French free-trade Renew Europe legislator Valerie Hayer after the vote. And she said others will be safe under the measure: "Camembert, Pont l'Évêque or Mont d'Or will be well protected."

The center-right European People's Party, the biggest group in the European Parliament with a traditional farming electorate and penchant for heritage protection, led the defense of the wooden boxes for Camembert and other cheeses.

"Who can imagine a Camembert or a Mont d'Or without its wooden strapping? Packaging them in plastic would be a gustatory and environmental aberration," said French MEP Laurence Sailliet.

"Europe must know how to protect the environment, but never to the detriment of the specific characteristics of its member states," she added.

And food is one of the touchiest characteristics for sure.

The British used anti-EU food foment to the extreme in the years leading up to Brexit, with former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, then still a Brussels journalist, leading the tabloid assault with stories that the EU would insist that bananas would have to be straight and eliminate beloved British biscuits.

It helped turn the United Kingdom against the EU, and voters decided in a referendum to leave.

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