At last week’s BRICS Summit President Xi Jinping promised not to “move anyone’s cheese” – a reference to Spencer Johnson’s motivational fable Who Moved My Cheese?
While cheese isn’t traditionally eaten in China, it does get mentioned in official speeches. In Johnson’s book, it is synonymous with profit and opportunity.
Yet shortly before Xi told BRICS attendees that no one had anything to fear from the rise of developing nations – they just want to make the economic “pie” larger, he said – his government was, in a very real way, moving someone’s cheese.
Or perhaps that should be “removing” it.
In late August, the authorities banned imports of Brie, Camembert and 50 more soft cheeses from Europe. The reason, according to companies who distribute them, is that they have “too much bacteria”.
Just under $400 million of hard and soft cheese was imported last year, according to customs data (mozzarella is the most popular, with New Zealand the main exporter, as reported in WiC321).
One theory is that softer cheeses have been banned – after years of unrestricted sale – to give local producers a chance to compete. “There is no good reason for the ban, because China considers the same cheese safe if produced in China,” the Guardian quoted a spokesperson from the EU as saying
“This effectively means that China is banning famous and traditional European cheeses that have been safely imported and consumed in China for decades. The entire Chinese market for soft cheeses is now closed,” he added.
Shoppers started noticing shortages about a month ago when individual cities began to block imports. On August 23 China’s largest importer of foreign cheeses Sinodis was informed that the ban was nationwide – although in letters to its clients it said it was ‘temporary’.
China’s food laws are conservative on the use of bacteria in dairy products but there is a domestic exception for “cultures that are traditionally used for food production”.
Local producers have been trying to make European cheeses, such as Liu Yang – who is better known as Le Fromager de Pekin – who sells a local “Camembert” and a “Stilton”. But most Chinese firms concentrate on hard or processed cheese, which is more popular with consumers. Gruyere, Emmentale and Manchego aren’t included in the ban, according to a WeChat posting by Cheese Republic, a Shanghai distributor.
“In my opinion: no bacteria = fake cheese,” said Cheese Republic’s owner, Vincent Marion.
“We may have lost a battle, but we have not lost the war! Are we no longer allowed to taste cheese? Let’s stop eating rice,” he added.
But as expats rushed to buy the remaining supplies, most locals seemed unfazed. One Chinese newspaper only got 11 comments on a story on the ban, including one contribution that soft cheese only be allowed back into China when the EU allows the import of the Chinese delicacy Thousand-Year-Old Eggs.
Keeping track: The ban greatly dismayed European expats living in cities like Beijing and Shanghai, as well as the European Union – which smelled a protectionist rat. The EU quickly displayed its heft in trade issues, mind you (take note Brexiteers) by negotiating with China’s quarantine officials. The BBC reported this week that the ban on ‘stinky’ cheeses had been lifted and sales of the likes of Roquefort and Gorgonzola had resumed in China. The EU and the French Embassy also organised a technical seminar with experts explaining the high standards employed in making soft European cheeses (perhaps mentioning the lack of casualties over the centuries) so as to avoid future issues. Euromonitor expects cheese sales in China to grow 26% this year to Rmb5.3 billion ($800 million). About 90% is imported although most comes from Australia and New Zealand and the biggest seller is Mozzarella thanks to the pizza market (for more on this see WiC321).
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