Russia's Food Import Ban Is a Horror Story for Cheese
Published: August 14, 2014 (Issue # 1824)
When Russia banned food imports from Western countries last week, cheese-lovers were horrified. In the upcoming decimation of consumer choice, the cheese shelves looked particularly vulnerable. Camembert, Parmesan, Edam, Cheddar — all would be swept away, leaving behind only their bland, rubbery, plastic-wrapped Russian peers.
But the supermarket shelves are unlikely to empty completely. Over two decades of capitalism, Russian cheese makers have learned that European lookalike branding sells. That Italian-looking mozzarella that you've been buying all this time? It turns out it was made in Russia. Choice will take a hit, but not collapse. Only the top, authentic brands will disappear.
But prices are likely to rise across the board. According to a government report obtained by ITAR-Tass, when Russia retaliated to the sanctions of Western countries — designed to force Russia to abandon support for separatist rebels fighting in eastern Ukraine — with food import bans against them, it cut the supply of 30 percent of the cheese consumed in Russia, or 263,000 tons per year.
That volume will need replacing, either with new imports or domestic production. But whole milk already costs 30 percent more in Russia than in Europe, the head of dairy manufacturer Umalat, Alexei Martynenko, told Vedomosti this week. And the price is likely to rise. Demand for milk from Russian cheese-makers seeking to boost production will jump, just as supply falls — Russia produces less milk than it uses, and milk imports from Europe also come under the ban.
So as a milk supply pinch sharpens a cheese supply pinch, even the mass of low-income Russians — for whom the loss of authentic French Brie is more a welcome slap in the face for rich liberal urban elites than an infringement on their shopping habits — will be hit by price rises.
Despite their arsenals of famous cheese names, France and Italy supply only 2 percent of Russia's total cheese imports. Indeed, Russia's 140 million inhabitants consume only 10 tons of high-end hard cheese each month, Martynenko said.
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