By Maria Cândida Sampaio, Balde Branco Magazine, July 2011 (Translated by Robin Geld)

In the state of Minas, Brazil, artisanal raw milk cheese production suffers the pressures of federal legislation and commerce of the traditional product can be restricted to within state borders.


With its 300-year history marked by cultural and emotional links with the Minas Gerais people and registered by Iphan (National Institute of Historical and Cultural Heritage) as an intangible cultural heritage, Minas Artisanal Raw Milk Cheese finds itself, since 2008, at an impasse. On the one hand is the state law with its production and commerce regulations; on the other, the federal law, of over half a century, which prohibits its sale and that of any other unpasteurized cheese outside the state of Minas.

The issue has even made it into the cinema, being addressed in the feature length documentary O Mineiro e o Queijo (Minas people and their Cheese) by film director Helvécio Ratton, who raises a fundamental question: can what is good for Minas not be good for the rest of Brazil?  Surely, the answer involves various interests and a state-wide concern, especially regarding small producers who are unable to meet federal law requirements nor the Minas state legislation of 2002, which created the Minas Artisanal Cheese Program.

After the Public Prosecutor’s recent all-out inspection that shook up the entire production chain, producers have been given another two years to make the needed adjustments to meet state legislation.  However, it lies much in the hands of district representatives whether or not such deadline is met. The mid-March inspection was aggressive and ended up in protests. One thousand one hundred kilos of cheese were apprehended in 56 commercial establishments, mainly for lack of labeling and certificates.

Minas has 853 cities, 600 of which produce cheese. Of the 30 thousand producers, only 0,5% are registered at the State Department of Agriculture, or in other words, only 158, it being that another 150 are in the process of registration. The municipality of Uberaba, a regional pole of commerce included in the Artisanal Minas Cheese Program in January 2011, felt directly the damages of inspection. At the city market, where 17 t of cheese are sold monthly, close to 800 kg of cheese were apprehended and thrown in the city’s garbage dump, with no analysis at all of the product.

“A waste and total lack of good sense and preparation of those who should be on the side of the producers and the population,” points out the  municipal councilor Marcelo Machado Borges – Borjão. Organized locally and headed by him, meetings were then held with producers of various rural communities, followed by registering, visits to properties to find out the reality of the municipality, what type of cheese produced, under what conditions and how to comply with the legislation.

State Representative Adelmo Carneiro Leão (PT-MG) considers the apprehensions to have been abusive throughout the State and stands for educational rather than punitive action. As such, his first initiative was to send an official notice to State Prosecutor Alceu José Torres Marques, soliciting clarification and information on the crackdown. At the same time, in answer to the request to the Health Commission to debate the problem in the Legislative Assembly, a meeting was held on April 20, gathering more than 100 producers and merchants, with 30 cities represented.


Norms for production and commerce

“Artisanal cheese is of great economic value to family agriculture. It is recognized nationally as the symbol of the Mineiros (people of Minas), ” points out Adelmo Leão. For him, the problem is how to treat it as a product of the State economy and as such, guarantee legal conditions for it to be commercialized to any region in the Country. “The market is open. The problem is to create conditions and logistics for production, commerce and distribution,” he says, observing that for such there has to be political support and action.

To this end, there is a regulation under study by a group made up of Minas State Government agronomists  and representatives. Underway is a state decree establishing transition rules until the law is put into effect. This should take up to 60 days, as informed by the manager of IMA (Minas Institute of Agriculture), Pedro Hartung, and includes the creation of a compensation fund so that small producers can be subsidized during the adaptation period.

The idea, according to the Commission, is to allow production to become a business, a work possibility and source of income, not only a complement. The Association of Araxá Producers listed some points it considers important. Among these: review of microbiological standards of maturation and humidity of artisanal raw milk cheese; implanting distribution and quality control centers; access to credit specific for adjustment requirements, purchase of animals and raw materials; producers and merchandisers freed from taxes, and inclusion of cheese in the state or municipal free school meals.

Federal Representative Paulo Piau (PMDB-MG) saw his petition approved in April by the plenary for the realization of a public appearance at the House of Representatives on cheese and legislation dealing with the issue.  While awaiting confirmation of the date, he has repeated that the government needs to understand that be it in Sweden or in France, Serro or Canastra, special cheeses require typical regional characterization. To draw up this new legislation Ministry of Agriculture and other government technicians, as well as cheese producers of the various regions should be called on.

The Minas State Government, in its turn, has formally questioned the minimum time periods required for cheese maturation to free cheese from health risks. It has solicited related research from the main universities in Minas as well as Epamig (Minas Gerais Agricultural Research Institute). All consultation results indicate food safety with maturation in 14 days for Minas Serro cheese, and 21 days for Minas Cerrado, Canastra and Araxá cheeses.

Regarding cited maturation periods, it is common for producers to refer to the problem with a degree of skepticism, declaring that they know of no one who has “died from cheese.”


French Cheese as an example

Defenders of artisanal raw milk cheese want a strengthening of the product and due respect from the government. For example,  recalls Minas State Representative Adelmo Leão, “France refused to export its cheeses to the USA because North American legislation establishes maturation indexes out of traditional French standards. The result was that the USA soon gave in and the cheese exported to the country preserved the characteristics established by the French—actually, these cheeses are also exported to Brazil. The French based themselves on the fact that the way the cheese is produced is what gives it its taste and texture.”

Concluding, he affirms, “So it is necessary to respect the typology also of Minas artisanal cheese, otherwise it will be extinct.” This is also the opinion of the NGO Sertãobras, cheese supporter and precursor in following up on producers, merchandisers and consumers in the states of Minas and São Paulo. The aim is to demonstrate scientifically that there are no sanitary problems with Minas raw milk cheese. The prohibition of unpasteurized milk is a simple imitation of USA sanitary legislation, with no tradition in the production of raw milk cheeses, while in Europe there are hundreds of them.

The veterinary Leôncio Diamante points out that international commerce has to have certified approval by SIF (Federal Inspection Service) and the present State law. “And this has some specificities impossible to be complied with by artisanal raw milk cheese. Further, the cost of setting up a queijaria (cheese house) in accord with legislation is impossible for the small producer, who does not even have access to credit from official banks,” he says. Diamante cites as well interference in the mode of production, in the attempt for standardization of different producers. “It’s impossible to demand that a tradition of 300 years now be confectioned in a way different only to comply with legislation,” he says. Regarding this, Local Representative Marcelo Borjão, of Uberaba, warned that if there is not a change in legislation, taking into consideration the small producers who make between two and 10 cheeses per day, Minas Gerais runs the risk of seeing the black market of cheese grow. Diamante agrees with him and adds that the product many times complements substantially family income. “The way present norms are, only the distributor will come out winning,” he argues.

Sertãobras and other NGOs see the need to wave the cheese flag and make heard across society and the various levels of government that Minas Artisanal raw milk cheese and the way of making it is a national  heritage. As such, a special  statute must be defined for artisanal agrofood production that is viable and not subject to a series of unfeasible norms, as is usual with what is enounced by RIISPOA (Regulation of Industrial and Sanitary Inspection of Animal Products).


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