Shooting yourself in the mouth

by Chris Bertram on February 9, 2009

From “an article on growing protectionism”: in the Wall Street Journal:

bq. The U.S. is planning retaliatory tariffs on Italian water and French cheese to punish the EU for restricting imports of U.S. chicken and beef.

Well I guess Americans can just drink different water, and Europeans can eat their own beef and chicken. But the cheese thing, that’s just masochism.



giotto 02.09.09 at 7:02 pm

I can’t tell if the article is being disingenuous or not regarding the EU restrictions on US chicken and beef. Are there new restrictions, which might be considered part of the larger trend, or is this referring to restrictions that have been in place for years, particularly bans on hormone-fed beef and on chlorine-washed chicken? Or, to get the the heart of the matter: is the US Agricultural-Industrial Complex using international trade agreements to undercut consumer protection laws in the EU, and is this going to be permitted under the rubric of “free trade”?

On the cheese: alas, most Americans seem content with American “cheese” and would not notice the disappearance from the stores of the real thing. It goes without saying that I’m referring to residents of “real” America, not the latte-sipping etc…


Chuchundra 02.09.09 at 7:23 pm

Good Vermont cheddar is very tasty. The frogs can keep their moldy stuff.


David Moles 02.09.09 at 7:29 pm

Please. Anybody in North America who’s enough of a snob to prefer Babybel and La Vache qui Rit to whatever Vermont, Wisconsin, California or Oregon product is available locally — never mind the many fine cheeses produced by our NAFTA neighbors — can afford the tariffs.


Harry 02.09.09 at 7:29 pm

Our state (Wisconsin) has invested a lot of money in training farmers to make high-end cheeses (eg, sending them to work with cheesemakers in France, Italy, and Switzerland where people know how to make cheese that people might want to eat). So even without Vermont and New York cheddar, it is possible to get pretty good cheese. But the tariffs will have to be very high to enable toe Wisconsin cheeses to compete on price.


Matt 02.09.09 at 7:36 pm

Giotto- these are not new restrictions on US products, but just new targets for the retalitory tariffs. Several years ago the US won at the WTO in a dispute on these restrictions when the EU couldn’t come up w/ any evidence (or sufficient evidence, anyway- the dispute resolution body and the appellate body were not impressed) that the ban was based on real health worries. As such, the were not allowed. The approved penalty for such bans is rotating tariffs put on different products at different times to spread around the pain, on the theory that this will make a broad group of people wanting to get rid of the protectionist measures. It doesn’t seem to work that well in practice. The EU, somewhat more recently, has tried to suggest that it is in compliance with the appellate body decision, and so the rotating tariffs should be lifted, but this hasn’t yet be ruled on. Whether this general idea, or the decision of the WTO bodies, are sound or not I take no particular position here. But, this sort of thing is used for essentially protectionist reasons on the time so it’s something to be skeptical of. The poorly written stories always make it sound like a new thing every time the tariff targets switch, but it’s not- it’s been going on for many years now. It’s a shame to have to pay more for good cheese, though. Note also that this doesn’t force the EU to change it’s laws at all- they haven’t changed them in the many years this program has been in place- but just makes them more expensive. I don’t see that as being especially unreasonable.


Matt 02.09.09 at 7:38 pm

Also, to go on what others have said, it’s not at all hard to get excellent cheese in the US from places other than France, and it’s only a few types of French cheese getting the tariff this time. (Many of the local farmers that sell at the Union Square Farmer’s Market, for example, make truly great cheese in small batches.) I do like a lot of cheese from France, but the suffering will be fairly small.


Raffi 02.09.09 at 7:48 pm

It doesn’t say so in this article, but the cheese on which tariffs are being imposed is Roquefort, for which there can be no equivalent in the United States (no matter how good are domestic blues are gettings). It is like saying that tariffs on Champagne are immaterial, because you can just drink Californian bubbly. Not the same thing.


lemuel pitkin 02.09.09 at 8:01 pm

Anybody else love this Hudson Valley camembert?

Seems to me that small-scale, “traditional” agriculture has quite some rather large social benefits — that’s why Europe has worked so hard to preserve it. And if cheese tariffs last for a while, we’ll see a big increase in high-end cheesemaking in this country — with a long-term reduction in cost and increase in the market, not to mention an esthetically and environmentally preferable rural landscape.

It’s not like there are natural endowments for cheesemaking that are limited to a few spots on the planet. So why does it make sense to have good cheese produced in only a few regions and then expensively shipped across the Atlantic? And aren’t the AOC rules that preserve these French cheeses in the first place a form of protection? This seems like a perfectly appropriate area for protectionism to me.


mollymooly 02.09.09 at 8:09 pm

Anybody who eats Babybel and La Vache qui Rit needs to work harder at being a snob.


harry b 02.09.09 at 8:37 pm

#9 — Depends what universe you inhabit. If all you’ve had before is Velveeta, perhaps La Vache seems snobby.


tadhgin 02.09.09 at 8:41 pm

“And aren’t the AOC rules that preserve these French cheeses in the first place a form of protection? ”

Actually they are closer to being communally owned trademarks , it is just a matter of when things were developed, in another era it might be “Atlanta Cola” which was AOC.


JulesLt 02.09.09 at 9:18 pm

British blue cheese is no longer the joke it once was – in part we can thank the wide availability of French cheese and food-snobbery for creating a market for indigenous cheese-makers that certainly didn’t exist a few decades ago, but it’s also an outcome of what some comments here have identified (the return of the artisanal producer, as farmers look to escape the stranglehold of being supermarket suppliers).

I’ve no idea if the American market is ahead or behind in this, but it certainly shows it’s possible.

Lemuel – I don’t think it’s a case of only producing good cheese in a few regions, so much as the fact that there are a lot of environmental factors that affect the taste of cheese (i.e. milk tastes different depending on the breed of animal, the soil underlying the grass, etc).

We can definitely import techniques, and I’m sure it’s possible to find places with similar climate and soil, and seed them with the appropriate grass . . . but like wine, the end product will be slightly different. And some people will always use that to claim it must be inferior (far easier to know what is the best, than to judge which you prefer).

(It’s also amusing how much the French get away with an insularity / ignorance / patriotism worse than the most red-neck American, yet this is accepted and encouraged by the Anglo middle class. I often wonder if we’ve ever got over the Norman invasion).


lemuel pitkin 02.09.09 at 9:56 pm

OK, but the question remains: Is a global market in cheese necessarily a good thing?


Tom Hurka 02.09.09 at 10:18 pm

Vive le fromage quebecois!


agm 02.09.09 at 10:27 pm

When France learns how to properly involve jalapenos in their cheese, then we’ll talk. Until then, I’ll merely make them down as part of the world of amazing cheeses, not the acme of it.


Chris Bertram 02.09.09 at 10:31 pm

_British blue cheese is no longer the joke it once was_

If Stilton was ever a joke I missed it. But then I come from round there: Colston Bassett, Long Clawson, Cropwell Bishop ….


Matt 02.09.09 at 10:40 pm

When this was noted on Matt Yglesias’ blog a week or so ago there was a long debate about whether Stilton or Roquefort were the “king of blue cheese”. I can’t say that a clear winner emerged, but good Stilton is awfully good cheese.


Chris Bertram 02.09.09 at 11:06 pm

It is Matt, but it did suffer a tiny bit in the late 80s after the listeria scare, when Colston Bassett converted to using pasteurised milk (the other dairies had already done so, and CB was the unpasteurised holdout). Stichelton (which can’t be called Stilton for legal reasons) is an attempt to recreate that lost taste. They’re doing pretty well – try it if you can.


giotto 02.09.09 at 11:36 pm

Matt, thanks for the clarification.

And just to clarify my own post: by “American cheese” I did not mean “cheese made in America.” I meant the ubiquitous orange processed meets-the-legal-definition-of-cheese cheese-like substance known as American cheese. I do love a Vermont cheddar so old that it is practically crystallized.


Matt 02.10.09 at 12:01 am

Thanks Chris- I’ll look for it. (I’m very fond of good cheese. One thing that I miss about not living in Philadelphia any more is having access to a really world-class cheese store, DeBruno Brothers.) You’re right, Giotto- “American” cheese is terrible, and it’s quite possible to get a lot of bad cheese here that doesn’t even fit that official category. Tom- I don’t know much about the cheese of Quebec in general but the last time I was there I did have some really great local cheese curds, bought from a farmer’s market.


engels 02.10.09 at 12:13 am

Hasta el Manchego siempre!


nick s 02.10.09 at 12:17 am

Is a global market in cheese necessarily a good thing?

That’s a worthwhile question. I have nostalgic moments when I remember the dozens of local cheeses being sold out of a van at a small-town French market, but I wouldn’t really want them sold in the US, even in the local hippie-grocer alongside the growing range of American-made varieties. Other cheeses do rely upon a global market, for better or worse, which is why they value the protection of AOC.

Still, Clothaire Rapaille is basically correct on how Americans regard cheese, and it’ll take a big top-and-bottom cultural shift towards food and agriculture to change that, which extends to the criminalisation of small-scale dairies by the FDA.


rea 02.10.09 at 12:21 am

No cheese-eating surrender monkeys in this here trade war, no sir . . .


Geiseric 02.10.09 at 3:25 am

Quebecker cheese! It is tasty indeed.


roy belmont 02.10.09 at 6:18 am

I’ll be looking some of that Wisconsin toe cheese, as mentioned in #4.
Keeping in mind a whole lot of folks are making do with whatever cheese the local food bank gives them, if it has any that day.


Tom Hurka 02.10.09 at 7:53 am

Mind you, Quebec cheese makers probably benefit from Canada’s supply-management system for milk, which primarily benefits Quebec dairy farmers (a politically powerful group) and is a form of agricultural subsidy. Which brings us back to the original topic of protectionism …


Tracy W 02.10.09 at 10:30 am

On the food miles issue, as I understand it the evidence is that any environmental damage is far more complex than just distance. See
(As a NZer, I am probably exposed to biased sources of information on this from NZ farmers, given the importance of agricultural exports to the NZ economy. On the other hand, probably British and American farmers have the opposite bias, on the third hand, both my links above are UK ones).

As for Americans being able to afford to purchase good cheese – I spent a uni summer in Boston in the USA as a student on one of those temporary work visas and suffered from being unable to get decent cheese. The “good stuff” (within my price range) tasted worse than NZ’s $5 for 1 kg Valumetric cheese. Of course things may have improved since then – they could hardly have gotten worse.


Fr. 02.10.09 at 10:38 am

First major Obama f*ck-up. Hopefully my plane leaves to Paris in a few hours–I’m out of here.


Beryl 02.10.09 at 2:48 pm


What Tom Hurka said. Protected or otherwise, the stuff is excellent — in a recent comparison tasting it bested similar French cheeses in five of six cases. Even their (aged) cheddar is top notch.


salient 02.10.09 at 10:22 pm

But the tariffs will have to be very high to enable toe Wisconsin cheeses to compete on price.

Speaking of which, I miss living across the street from a Brennan’s Market as much as anything.

Fun fact of questionable utility: Madison gets 3,168 hits for cheese, and Wisconsin’s pushing 3,000,000, nearly half as many hits as all of France.


bad Jim 02.11.09 at 5:22 am

Praise cheeses!

Trade restrictions don’t seem to have done much to reduce the selection available at Trader Joe’s. There’s a substantial variety of good domestic cheeses, but the range is limited compared to that of the European exports. One might conjecture that the American market for good cheese is small enough to be nearly satisfied by inexpensive imports, in contrast to the wine market. I see more vineyard acreage driving through either California’s Central Valley or the Salinas valley than riding a train through Bordeaux or Tuscany.


b-psycho 02.12.09 at 3:53 pm

…water from Italy? I don’t even like bottled water from HERE & prefer the tap, who the hell is buying Italian water?

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