Why Roquefort, again?

Roquefort is on the list of targeted products, again. The U.S. Trade Representative under new direction is pushing for levies on certain products imported form Europe.

There are different ways that a particular cheese can stand out, make a name for themselves, and come to be famous or notorious in the public mind. Cheeses like Stilton, Manchego, Gruyère AOP, or Oaxaca come to stand in as emblems of their countries of origin. They represent the gastronomic identity of those places. In turn, they are the cheeses that are vulnerable to being elevated or snubbed when a particular country or culture is singled out. 

I believe this is why Roquefort is repeatedly singled out as a convenient target. Perhaps the second best-known cheese of France after Brie, Roquefort is the quintessential French cheese. Its story speaks of French terroir, from its milk coming from Lacaune ewes to the aging in the Combalou caves. Roquefort is uniquely French cheese it this is among the reasons it has been drawn into ongoing trade battles between the U.S. and the European Union over tariffs, beef imports, and access to markets. 

Back in 2009, the U.S. Trade Representative successfully convinced the outgoing Bush administration to impose a 300% tariff on Roquefort cheese. It came in retaliation to the EU’s refusal to authorize the importation of U.S. beef raised with hormones. The Confédération Générale de Roquefort saw a window of opportunity with the incoming Obama administration and lobbied to find a solution. They even sent samples of their cheese. (The Confédération Générale de Roquefort was one of the original members of the Cheese of Choice Coalition). As I wrote in The Oxford Companion to Cheese “the extra tariffs were eventually eliminated by the Obama administration in exchange for greater access to the European Union’s hormone-free beef market.”

This week, we learned that Roquefort is again on the list of products being considered for a new tax to be levied under a similar action promoted by the U.S. beef industry. The U.S. Trade Representative has requested a reinstatement of measures. [You can read more here.] We see two problems:

  1. The measure relates to meat and meat products. Therefore, as a dairy product, Roquefort seems like an irrelevant addition. It would appear to be the worst type of retaliatory politics, sacrificing the interests of our industry to appease the much more powerful beef lobby. 
  2. This action would limit choices for American consumers. Roquefort is regarded as a unique product, made with the highest quality milk, and in many instances made with raw milk. Adding a punitive tariff will directly impact consumers, who will be charged extra for a product, with no rationale for being taxed at a higher rate than other cheeses. 

Read comments here from our partners and Coalition members, including the Cheese Importers Association of America, and the Confédération Générale de Roquefort. We will continue to monitor and will spread the message in the lead up to a public hearing on the subject on February 15. We are working together with organizations and representatives to work to protect cheese from being used as a political bargaining chip in trade disputes as well as any other policies that threaten U.S. consumer choices.

Your membership is important. Your contributions allow us to continue advocating for consumers and producers. Please consider supporting our work today. 

Carlos Yescas - Oldways Cheese Coalition Program Director