Ex­pa­tri­ates in China are ask­ing, who moved my cheese?

Global Times – Metro Shanghai - - FRONT PAGE - By John Harold Arm­strong

China’s re­cent ban on the im­por­ta­tion of soft cheeses from Europe has dis­mayed long-term ex­pats here and caused a flut­ter of worry to run through its for­eign-run food and bev­er­age in­dus­try. Any im­ported cheeses made with molds and bac­te­ria are now of­fi­cially viewed as a health risk by China’s qual­ity su­per­vi­sion au­thor­i­ties. It all brings to mind ear­lier days when cheese was worth smug­gling into the coun­try packed in your suit­case wrapped in waxed paper due to the pro­hib­i­tive cost of buy­ing it here. Will we soon see a re­turn to the old days of cheese be­ing a golden con­tra­band?

Keep in mind that your Parmi­giano Reg­giano is un­der no threat what­so­ever. Swiss, Manchego and even fresh Moz­zarella are still safely on sale, as is good old-fash­ioned Ched­dar bricks. Edam is un­af­fected as well as any­thing that comes pro­cessed in slices, tubs and aerosol cans. It’s only the smelly, heav­enly, drippy, runny and pun­gent va­ri­eties – the sort that tend to have the odor of sweaty gym socks – that are un­der scru­tiny.

An al­most iden­ti­cal de­bate has been raging in other parts of the world with re­spect to “raw milk” cheeses that are made with un­pro­cessed or un­pas­teur­ized dairy and would also be clas­si­fied as very costly spe­cialty foods. There is an in­cli­na­tion for pro­duc­ers and con­sumers of th­ese prod­ucts to take a very pro­tec­tive view of mar­ket reg­u­la­tion, and they of­ten bris­tle at out­siders in­ter­fer­ing in their some­times ar­cane meth­ods.

Mar­ket reg­u­la­tors are un­der­stand­ably skit­tish when it comes to public safety; just be­cause a prod­uct is ex­pen­sive and dif­fi­cult to pro­duce does not make it ex­empt from health and safety re­quire­ments. Cue the cries of “… out of my cold dead hands!” com­ing from cer­tain quar­ters of China’s ex­pat pop­u­la­tion. If there is one thing that long-ter­m­ers here hate more than hav­ing their ac­cess to the In­ter­net cur­tailed, it’s the loss of ex­pen­sive com­fort foods. If an Asian govern­ment ever de­sired to raise the ire of their West­ern ex­pa­tri­ate com­mu­nity, then the surest path is a tac­ti­cal strike at their cheese sup­ply.

Cheese has long been a rare lux­ury in China. High-end cheeses of the type cur­rently in Bei­jing’s cross hairs have al­ways had to be im­ported and thus faced rel­a­tively steep taxes and du­ties. The fun­da­men­tal rules of the mar­ket dic­tate a high price for in­dulging in a food not nec­es­sar­ily pop­u­lar among lo­cals. Imag­ine hav­ing to trans­port, im­port and store highly sen­si­tive and per­ish­able dairy prod­ucts through­out a con­vo­luted sup­ply chain and then some­how bring it to mar­ket to a fickle, small and se­lect group of buy­ers. What is very im­por­tant to note is that, just be­fore the an­nounce­ment about China’s new cheese ban, there was a flour­ish­ing of new Chi­nese pro­duc­ers of cheese and widened avail­abil­ity of spe­cialty and im­port prod­ucts via e-re­tail­ers like Taobao and sketchy mom-and-pop-owned “ex­pired im­port” shops. It is now no longer dif­fi­cult to buy Euro­peanstyle cheeses in China. For the cost-con­scious there are now lo­cally pro­duced, af­ford­able and frankly bet­ter ver­sions in most cat­e­gories. Years ago I switched over to a lo­cally pro­duced fresh moz­zarella that is far su­pe­rior to im­ported prod­ucts – and at half the cost! There may be a dip in the avail­abil­ity of soft cheeses, but hope­fully there will be only a tem­po­rary short­age of fon­due and brie. De­mand from the lo­cal five-star restau­rant in­dus­try will en­cour­age more do­mes­tic play­ers to get into the mold game. Even­tu­ally, the cur­rent ill-winds will shift and the ripe whiff of tra­di­tion will even­tu­ally blow our way again. The opin­ions ex­pressed in this ar­ti­cle are the author’s own and do not nec­es­sar­ily re­flect the views of the Global Times.

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