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The Burial of 80Kg of Roquefort

Extract by Kate Nancarrow,
as published in The Age (melbourne) magazine, September 2007.

It is a blue that has gone on for years, but the lowest point in our rocky relationship with Roquefort was September 18, 2003, when British-born importer Will Studd was ordered to destroy 80 kilograms of the ewe’s milk cheese that had been impounded for almost two years.

The crusading Studd had started importing the sweet-salty blue cheese from France in the 1990s, as part of his campaign to offer cheese-lovers a wider variety of international styles, including those made from raw milk. The French may have been making Roquefort since Roman times, with little damage to their digestive wellbeing, but Australia’s food safety authorities had a long-standing ban on the local production of raw-milk cheeses, concerned about listeria and other gastric ghastlies. Many Australian cheese producers also recoiled from manufacturing techniques involving raw milk.

But the ban puzzled Studd: if imported raw-milk cheeses were safe, why weren’t local ones? In 1994, he challenged the ban’s logic and the national food safety body immediately recognised the inconsistency. “To my horror, instead of changing the law in Australia, they decided to ban Roquefort,” Studd told the ABC in 2005.

Oops. The ban caught other raw-milk cheeses, such as Parmigianino reggiano and rectifying that problem took another two years of lobbying but, still, the Roquefort ban remained.

Studd then changed tack; in January 2002, he imported the aforementioned 80 kilograms of Roquefort to confront what he saw as ambiguities in Food Standards Australia New Zealand’s guidelines. He hoped a regulation requiring cheese to be “made from pasteurised milk or the equivalent in bacteria reduction” allowed room for Roquefort to meet the limits on bacteria in ways other than pasteurisation.

But, seized and impounded by quarantine service’s imported-food officials, the 80 kilograms of Roquefort never even reached the FSANZ testing table, with officials saying it was much about the manufacturing process as the end result. In a last ditch effort in April 2003, Studd appealed to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal on the technical interpretation of regulations governing “failed foods”.

Finally, on September 18, 2003, with Studd feeling both the Roquefort and the regulations governing it were long past their use-by date, the AAT rejected his appeal and ordered him to destroy the cheese that had, by then, been impounded for 21 months.

It was the end of an $80,000 legal fight. The guidelines were clear on destruction of impounded cheeses — supervised “deep burial” at a public landfill was required - so two weeks later, the Roquefort, draped in a tricolore, was taken by hearse for burial at Brooklyn tip while La Marseillaise played, and the cameras rolled.

Two years later, after negotiations between embarrassed French and Australian trade officials, the 11-year ban on importing Roquefort was lifted. And early next year (March 2008), FSANZ is expected to release its findings of a review into raw-milk cheese production in Australia.

The video footage of the burial can also be viewed at the Cheese Slices Website