Cheesy challenge

By Li Xuanmin Source:Global Times Published: 2017/9/19 18:28:39

Temporary import ban has limited impact on businesses, consumers

Consumers browse through fridges of cheese at a Walmart store in Chaoyang district on Monday. Photo: Li Xuanmin/GT

China has temporarily halted imports of certain European soft cheese such as Brie, Camembert, Epoisses, Bleu, Fourme d'Ambert and Roquefort, industry insiders told the Global Times. In the wake of the suspension, the Global Times visited international supermarkets in Beijing and spoke with consumers, company representatives and analysts to figure out the reasons behind the import halt as well as its potential market impact.

China's customs seems to have halted imports of a wide range of soft, mold-ripened cheese from Europe, including Brie, Camembert, Epoisses, Bleu, Fourme d'Ambert and Roquefort, although regulators have yet to publish an announcement detailing the measure, according to companies involved in the matter.

But the reported suspension is "not a big deal", as such cheese only targets a niche market and as there are still plenty of alternatives available, consumers and company representatives said.

"The ban on [certain types of soft European cheese] actually took effect two or three months ago. We were informed by suppliers. And since then, we have only been able to sell the stock that was imported beforehand. By now, all the soft cheese on the inventory list, except for Roquefort, has sold out," a manager at a store of Beijing-based imported goods supermarket chain April Gourmet, located in Chaoyang district, told the Global Times.

The suspension has incurred "some losses" to the supermarket chain, because the banned cheese "was stuck and could not be cleared at China's customs" without any prior notification, the manager said, without giving a specific estimate on the losses.

Another supermarket chain specializing in imported goods, Jenny Lou's, also experienced a similar situation.

At a Jenny Lou's store in Chaoyang district, the Global Times noticed that the temporarily banned soft cheese was no longer displayed on shelves. But other kinds of soft cheese, such as Mozzarella - which is widely used for pizzas - as well as hard cheese, including Cheddar, Comté and Manchego, were still in bulk supply. 

"There have been a few consumers coming in and asking to buy Brie since the ban took effect several months ago, but the only thing I can tell you is that purchasing Brie and Camembert will be very hard in the near future," an employee at Jenny Lou's told the Global Times on Monday.

Another employee of online cheese store also confirmed the suspension when contacted by the Global Times over the weekend. "For soft cheese Brie, we ran out of stocks about a week ago, and for Camembert, only 60 boxes weighing a total of 7.5 kilograms are left… and it is not clear when the ban will be lifted," he said.

Different standards

All three staff members contacted by the Global Times were not clear on the reasons behind the import halt. 

And the General Administration of Customs and the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ) had not yet responded to an interview request by the Global Times as of press time.

However, Zhi Shuping, head of AQSIQ, said at a press briefing of the State Council, the country's cabinet, on September 13 that "China has not issued a ban on European soft cheese," news site reported.

The suspension has only come after some consumers issued complaints to China Consumer Associations, and the food safety watchdog therefore subsequently launched investigations on the matter. "Once we found sensitive materials contained in the soft cheese, we planned to start strictly controlling [the imports]," Zhi was quoted as saying in the news article.

Cao Mingshi, vice secretary-general of the Shanghai Dairy Association, pointed out that, in addition to potential sanitation issues, the reason for the temporary ban is mainly based on the different standards China and European nations impose on cheese production, rather than what some media reports suggest as China closing its market for "trade protectionism."

"Currently, European cheese imports are required to comply with Chinese cheese safety standards. Under relevant domestic law, funguses such as geotrichum candidum, which is traditionally used in the production of cheese in Europe, are not permitted for import into China, prompting disputes," Cao told the Global Times.

Furthermore, standards which cap the level of yeast and mold contained in cheese also differ from country to country, posing further controversy over safety concerns, Cao said.

In response to the suspension, the European Chamber stressed in a statement sent to the Global Times on Monday that "European cheese has been imported into China for decades without resulting in any safety issues."

The institution also urged Chinese regulators to tighten "official procedures in order to integrate the cultures that are used for producing certain types of cheese into China's existing cheese safety standards."

Limited impact

China imported more than $400 million of cheese last year, but the temporarily banned imported cheese only accounted for a negligible proportion of the total volume due to low market demand, therefore the suspension has had a "limited impact," experts said.

"I don't think [the suspension] is a big deal, because in the past, our store has sold only about 1 kilogram of French soft cheese on average every month," said the aforementioned April Gourmet manager.

A 30-something Beijing resident surnamed Li, who was selecting soft cheese at an April Gourmet fridge when the Global Times visited the store, said she has never bought soft French cheese because of "the strong, unpleasant smell."

"For most Chinese consumers, tasting French soft cheese can be compared to foreigners tasting fermented bean curd…you cannot accept it because of the cultural differences," Wang Jianing, president of Shanghai-based cheese manufacturer Ambrosia Dairy, told the Global Times on Monday. The company has ceased the manufacturing of French soft cheese due to the imbalance between costs and revenues, according to Wang. 

As the majority of Chinese dislike the flavor, mold-ripened imported soft cheese is mostly consumed by western restaurants and foreign residents, Wang added.

But such consumer groups are not that worried.

When talking about the impact of the suspension to the Global Times on Monday, the manager of Beijing-based French restaurant Paradox, surnamed Axel, showed a long list of alternatives that the restaurant can use as substitutes for the flavor of the temporarily banned cheese.

"There is also a separate French soft cheese offer on the menu, but generally, no one orders it because of the hefty price," he said.

A French national, who has lived in Beijing for more than 10 years and prefers to remain anonymous, echoed some of the above statements by saying that the ban will not affect his eating habits. "Imported cheese is priced far too high, yet doesn't have an authentic French taste," he complained.

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