Expatriates in China are asking, who moved my cheese?
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.