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It’s Cheese vs. Goats in the French Alps Right Now

There’s a pretty crazy battle going on in France between environmentalists and farmers. On Monday, representatives of each went to court to support their case: protect the goats or protect the cheese.

Weird, right? You wouldn’t normally think of goats and cheese as opposing teams, but with a group of ill Alpine Ibex on the loose in the French Alps, that’s exactly what we’re dealing with. A handful of these majestic creatures have been identified as having brucellosis, a contagious disease in animals that can spread to humans through consumption of contaminated unpasteurized dairy.

This, of course, is bad news for the farmers of the 62 dairy farms in the region. A number of Savoy cheeses that are produced in the Alps could be in peril, most notably Reblochon. Made of unpasteurized cow’s milk, Reblochon has an AOC title—meaning it can only be considered Reblochon if made in Savoy—and is a much-loved fondue cheese and a vital ingredient of tartiflette.

If the disease moves from the goats to cheesemaking cows, it could butcher the production and export of cheese across the country, as well as permanently affect the state of Reblochon cheese, according to state prefect of Haute-Savoie, Georges-François Leclerc. Were the disease to show up in cattle now, France would be required to test all cows before exporting them, not to mention the number of cows that would have to be killed to prevent the disease from spreading.

French farmers already experienced the effects of a brucellosis epidemic in 2012, when an entire herd of cows had to be killed after falling ill, and another two herds were quarantined, all of which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Two children also contracted the disease, prompting the eradication of a massive amount of soft cheese throughout the country.

To avoid facing a similar situation, farmers are supporting a culling of the ibex. In September, Leclerc called for the cull of the majority of the goats, leaving only 70-75 goats that have tested negatively for brucellosis. But 40 percent of the 230-240 goats that were given the go-ahead on slaughtering have not been confirmed as sick, and understandably environmentalists are not on board with this plan.

Jean-Pierre Crouza, who oversees the local wildlife group FRAPNA calls the culling “a massacre and a mistake.” Animal advocate and former actress Brigitte Bardot has asked French President François Hollande to pardon the goats. Many wildlife activists also argue that culling the goats won’t fix the problem. Dominique Gautier, a vet and expert in transmittable diseases in wild animals, pointed to the failures of culling in 2013 to explain why culling isn’t the solution.

“The plan is clearly bound to fail for two reasons: one, you can never slaughter 100 percent of a [wild] herd; and two, there is a significant risk that [the disease] will spread to neighboring mountains,” Gauthier has said. “When herds are broken up, they reorganize in a haphazard way. Animals form groups without knowing each other, which increases contact and the risk of contamination.”

Approximately seventy goats have been killed before the culling was suspended until the court reaches a decision. Experts have suggested a slower cull, where goats are individually tested and vaccinated and only kill those testing positive. There is always the chance, however, that the disease will spread to the cattle before this process is completed.

While we at culture obviously love cheese, we also love cute animals, so if there’s a plan that will keep the cheese safe while killing as few goats as possible, we are all for it.

Feature Photo Credit: “Young steinbock fighting” by GUIDO BISSATTINI | Shutterstock

Sarah Cummings

Sarah Cummings is a native New Yorker braving the Boston winters to study Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College. In her spare time, she can often be found rock climbing, cuddling the neighborhood cats, or integrating goat cheese into her every meal.