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Canada's Cheese War Is a Clash of Cultures

A revolt ferments over proposed ban on runny cheeses

TO brie, or not to brie? That is the cheesy question foremost on the minds of Canada's most prominent parliamentarians.

While Prime Minister Jean Chrtien was in Romania last week unveiling a controversial Canadian-designed nuclear plant, his representatives at home were arguing in Parliament for a safety ban on certain types of cheese.

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Now Canada's epic struggle between English-speaking and French-speaking cultures has been transformed from stale political debate into culinary caterwauling over unpasteurized camembert and a dozen other runny cheeses, brie included.

The public is at risk from any cheeses made from "raw" (unpasteurized) milk, a government spokesman says. In Canada only a small segment of the nation's cheese industry uses raw milk - mostly in Quebec. Raw milk lends a strong, distinctive taste to cheese. Living in a province with a tradition of producing fine cheeses, Quebeckers often partake of cheese for dessert.

But Health Minister David Dingwall argues the dangers of bacterial contamination mean that cheese made from raw milk not cured to certain temperatures - whether imports or produced in Quebec - will be banned.

Cheese lovers throughout Canada are outraged, as are Quebec's separatist members of Parliament, the Bloc Quebecois. After weeks of uttering hardly a peep over a serious scandal brewing in the Canadian military, Bloc Quebecois representatives leapt to the defense of Quebec cheese. "Does the Minister of Health have nothing else to do other than regulate in an area where nobody wants to hear the talk of his public servants?" asked Pauline Picard, the bloc's health critic.

"I am tempted to say that [Ms. Picard's question] is full of holes," Mr. Dingwall responded. "My responsibility ... is to protect the health of Canadians."

Dingwall has offered 75 days for public comment on the cheese-ban plan. After that, he says, all cheeses sold in Canada will have to be made from pasteurized milk, or processed with heat, then stored for two months.

Still, the jawing over cheese continues. The bloc responded to the government's plan with a retaliatory lunchtime smorgasbord of aromatic cheeses - all made from raw milk - and invited Dingwall to try them. He did, but kept his stand in favor of a ban.

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Sensing that the topic might help the cause of Quebec independence, leader of the bloc in Parliament, Michel Gauthier, opined that current regulations are good enough and that any more would be an intrusion into Quebec's jurisdiction.

THUS has the great cheese debate spread beyond the halls of Ottawa to Quebec and to the newspapers of Toronto. A Toronto Star article ridiculing the proposed ban was entitled "Cheesing us off." In Montreal, cheese was the lead story in La Presse, a Montreal daily. And talk shows last week were flooded with calls telling federal bureaucrats that Quebeckers won't stand for any squelching of their tasty cultures.

Toward week's end, there were signs Dingwall may have bitten off more than he can chew. Joseph Volpe and John Nunziata, members of Parliament of Italian descent from Dingwall's own Liberal Party, worried aloud that the ban might also affect the best imported Italian parmesan cheese, which is not prepared at temperatures the health ministry is proposing.

"Anyone who has learned how to cook and eat well, will feel that this [issue] is important to them," Mr. Volpe said. "It applies to everybody."

For his part, Dingwall, who remains as firm as Dutch-made Gouda - is still not officially backing down. He is calling on everyone to "remain cool."

Meanwhile, Quebec political commentators are trying to put the Canadian cheese debate into proper perspective. "It's this type of quarrel that will make the difference in the next referendum [on Quebec independence]," Lysiane Gagnon wrote in a newspaper column last week - only partly in jest.

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