The Métropolitain

Inspectors wreak havoc on fromageries

By Dan Delmar on September 18, 2008

The province’s food inspection agency is in the midst of a zealous, unprecedented raid on Quebec cheese shops. Their mission: To seek and destroy any piece of cheese that has had even the most harmless flirtation with the sometimes harmful Listeria bacteria.

Owners of some Montreal fromageries are devastated after officials from the Ministère de l'Agriculture, des Pêcheries et de l'Alimentation du Québec (MAPAQ) forced them earlier this month to throw out every single piece of cheese that was not in its original packaging. Some 300 shops province-wide with the misfortune of having encouraged Quebec’s dairy industry were sought out based on client lists from the makers of tainted cheese and tens of thousands of dollars later, their stock is presumed to be safe for consumption.

The drastic measures came on the heals of a Canada-wide recall of tainted cold cuts made by Maple Leaf Foods. This time, soft cheeses made by Médard de St-Gédéon of Lac-St-Jean and Ste-Sophie’s Fromagiers de la Table Ronde were the culprit.

“It was just an overreaction because of the issues with Maple Leaf,” said Dr. Joe Schwarcz, the Director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society. “There was no reason to throw it all out. It’s not warranted and it hasn’t caused me to change what I eat.”

The MAPAQ’s Gouda Gestapo was particularly cruel with Gilles Jourdenais, owner of la Fromagerie Atwater. He was forced to chuck $100,000-worth of cheese into the trash; no recourse, no appeals process and, more importantly, no insurance.

“They panicked and went on a wild goose chase,” Jourdenais told The Métropolitain. “We tried for four hours to negotiate with the inspector, but his orders were clear: Search and destroy. We even tried begging, but in the end, logic had nothing to do with it.”

Ahmed El Seweify, the owner of a smaller Atwater Market fromagerie, was also hit hard: He had to toss inventory totalling $30,000.

“C’est exagéré!” said El Seweify, whose family has been in the cheese business for 40 years. “Nous sommes perdants mais nous avons rien à cacher. Notre magasin est toujours propre.”

Merchants said it was understandable to throw out cheeses that came from the same manufacturers as the ones found to be contaminated, but to destroy all the other brands was completely illogical. Knives, slicers and cutting-boards can all be sanitized with alcohol-based cleaners to virtually eliminate the risk of cross-contamination. The MAPAQ inspectors could also have simply quarantined the cheeses and ran tests instead of assuming all of the stock was tainted.

“We would have agreed to close our store for a couple of days, pulled everything into quarantine and done testing,” said Jourdenais, a third-generation fromager. “I’m positively sure that we threw away good product. I could have given it away.”

Ian Picard, co-owner of the five fromagerie Hamel outlets in the province, was forced to destroy 2,500 kilos worth roughly $120,000. In Hamel’s nearly half-century in business, he said the raids are a first. He said his fromager friends in France were also shocked by the scope of the operation.

“Je trouves ça vraiement très gros comme mesure pour protèger la santé publique,”  he said.

The outbreak has killed one Quebecer and sickened 22. Six pregnant women gave birth prematurely; one woman had a miscarriage that was blamed on Listeriosis. That was the “panic point” for health inspectors in Quebec, said Jourdenais. 

“Je comprends si les produits en question doivent être détruits,” said Picard, “mais pas tout les produits autour.”

Picard is so cheesed that he’s helped found l’Association des marchands fromager du Québec to stick up for boutiques like his who are helpless in the face of an all-powerful bureaucratic machine. He said a class-action lawsuit is a possibility, but nothing has been decided yet. Both Jourdenais and El Seweify told The Métropolitain that they can’t wait for their day in court.

The MAPAQ is defending their actions. A spokesperson was unavailable for comment, but in a communiqué, the agency said the measures were necessary and increased scrutiny has led them to investigate nine other Quebec cheese-makers who may not have complied with safety guidelines.

“Les autorités du MAPAQ sont convaincues que les mesures exceptionnelles mises en place au cours des derniers jours permettent de prévenir une hausse des cas rapportés à la Santé publique, voire même de sauver des vies.”

The agency’s latest move suggests a softer approach may have been warranted to begin with: Jourdenais’ shop was paid another heart-stopping visit last Friday, but this time inspectors simply seized the cheese for testing and did not jump the gun by throwing it all in the trash. If tests come back negative for Listeriosis, he will have his stock back in less than one week.

“I’m a cheese fanatic, an aficionado. I love what I do,” Jourdenais said. “For fifteen years we’ve been promoting Quebec cheeses and in one weekend, [the MAPAQ] has completely screwed it up for us. People will now think raw milk cheeses are dangerous, and that’s bullshit. They’re actually less of a concern.”

“When you pasteurize cheese, it takes away all the bacteria,” he explained. “‘Bad’ bacteria are fought off by ‘good’ bacteria.”

“We don’t live in a sterile environment. Bacteria are everywhere,” said Schwarcz. “No matter what you do, you can’t prevent this type of thing from happening sometimes.”

Quebec cheeses have been heavily promoted by the dairy industry in recent years and Jourdenais said it’s up to the MAPAQ to undo the damage they’ve done.

“They have to do more to help Quebec producers and give us retailers the tools to explain to customers what’s going on,” he said. “This is going to hurt. They have a major reconstruction job to do.”