Get It While You Can: Roquefort Cheese

Roquefort, a strong blue cheese made from sheep’s milk, has somehow gotten caught in the crosshairs of a Euro-American trade dispute.  The cheese is named for the specific region in France, Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, where it is aged in natural caves.  Its production is regulated by laws that determine not only the geographic origin, but also the specific breed that the milk comes from, making it an exclusive gourmet treat.

But this creamy, pungent food may not be available in the United States for much longer.  The already pricey cheese may rise sharply in cost this spring when a proposed 300% tariff is supposed to take effect.  The tax is part of a package of import duties on dozens of European luxury goods that was introduced in early 2009 by then U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab.  Other goods burdened with heavy taxes by the proposal include French truffles, Irish oatmeal and foie gras, but Roquefort cheese takes the hardest hit by far. The exorbitant tax is essentially tantamount to a trade ban, as U.S. companies would not be able to sell the cheese at such high prices.

This drastic measure was taken in the last days of the Bush Administration in reaction to the European Union’s ban on hormone-treated beef from the U.S.  The dispute over hormone beef, which is overseen by the World Trade Organization, has been going on since 1996 when the E.U. first imposed the ban.  Although the ban is asserted to be a matter of health and safety, Schwab and other U.S. officials see it as an aggressive trade tactic meant to promote Europe’s own beef industry.  The Roquefort tax is intended as retaliation to the E.U.’s continued refusal to lift the beef ban.

The tariff package was set to take effect at the end of March 2009, but has been delayed a month as officials on both sides attempt to resolve the dispute diplomatically.  With any luck, the new tax will be eradicated altogether, and Americans can continue to enjoy their Roquefort and rye.

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