Blog - The New York Times: When Taste Is a Trade Issue

The New York Times: When Taste Is a Trade Issue
By Jack Ewing - New York Times 24.06.2015 23:42

When Taste Is a Trade Issue

Christian Schmelzer already knows that Americans are interested in the cheese that he and a partner produce, even though it is crawling with millions of tiny mites.

American visitors often stop by his modest cheese-making operation in the tiny village of Würchwitz, in eastern Germany. They taste his milbenkäse, a variety of cheese ripened according to an ancient formula with the help of microscopic mites. Perhaps the visitors pay their respects at the cheese mite memorial outside.

 

But Mr. Schmelzer doesn’t dare try to export his cheese to the United States. “I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be allowed,” he said.

He’s probably right. While the United States and the European Union are each other’s largest trading partners, food is a relatively small part of the commercial relationship compared with other sectors like autos or pharmaceuticals. Agricultural products account for only about 5 percent of trade between the United States and Europe.

One reason there isn’t more food trade is that regulators and consumers on both sides of the Atlantic often have radically different ideas about what is safe or appetizing. Cultural differences are reflected in the rules on imports and exports. Reconciling the differences has become a big sticking point in ongoing talks to agree on a trans-Atlantic trade pact.

 
An assortment of mite cheese. Credit: Gordon Welters for The New York Times

Proponents of the pact, known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or T.T.I.P., say it would greatly ease the flow of all kinds of goods and give both economies a boost. For food aficionados, the pact would potentially give consumers in the United States and Europe a greater choice of what to eat. Maybe even mite cheese.

But the talks, which began in 2013, are moving more slowly than expected in large part because of food issues, which carry a disproportionateemotional and political weight. Relatively few electoral districts in the United States and Europe have car or chemical factories. But almost every district has a farm. Agriculture lobbies are powerful on both continents. And everyone eats.

“It’s less about the economic impact,” said Mute Schimpf, a food campaigner at Friends of the Earth in Brussels, which has opposed diluting European rules in the name of free trade. “Consumers and citizens care about it.”

President Obama, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and other leaders of the Group of 7 nations sought to give the talks a push at a summit meeting in Bavaria at the beginning of June. In a joint statement, they said they would “immediately accelerate work on all T.T.I.P. issues, ensuring progress in all the elements of the negotiations.” The wording was seen as a subtle poke at negotiators for the European Commission, who have been criticized for blocking progress on relatively easy issues until they get their way on some more controversial points.

Cheese mites provide a small — very small — illustration of how different views about what is safe to eat can affect trade. In 2013, United States customs officials blocked a shipment of a French variety of mite cheese, known as mimolette. The incident provoked a media kerfuffle and outrage among cheese aficionados.

There is no blanket ban on mite cheese, a spokesman for the United States Food and Drug Administration said this month. But American officials have not provided an explanation for why the mimolette was interdicted, except to say it did not meet standards.

 
Mites under a microscope. Credit: Gordon Welters for The New York Times

The mimolette producers’ cooperative, which is in Normandy, said the mite count had been found to be too high, a claim the French considered ridiculous because almost all cheese has mites.

But United States producers say they are more often the ones effectively banned from Europe because of a regulatory maze tied closely to local tastes and national pride. Europe exported agricultural products worth $19 billion to the United States last year, but imported only $12.6 billion worth of farm products from the United States, according to American figures.

Trade in cheese was especially lopsided. The European Union sold cheese valued at $955 million to the United States but bought only $22 million in cheese from the United States.

The imbalance grates on the Americans. A big issue is the European insistence that many cheeses associated with places on the map can only be produced there. For example, in the United States, feta and Havarti are generic terms for varieties of cheese. In the European Union, a cheese labeled feta must come from Greece and Havarti from Denmark.

“There is a long history of using these names in the United States,” said Nora Weiser, executive director of the American Cheese Society, an industry group based in Denver. Many cheese makers are descendants of immigrants who brought methods from their homelands, she noted.

Ms. Weiser said she has no objection to restrictions on cheese names linked to very specific places, like brie de Meaux. But if the use of names that have a generic meaning in the United States remains banned in Europe, she said, “we don’t feel the trade agreement is truly a free trade agreement.”

 
The cheesemaking process involves cleaning off older cheese so that new mites can find a place.Credit: Gordon Welters for The New York Times

American food companies also complain they are at the mercy of Europeanfood safety restrictions that have no scientific justification.

In Europe there are also widespread objections to food containinggenetically modified crops (a concern shared by many Americans). In addition, the European Union has banned beef from cattle that have been fed certain kinds of hormones, despite findings by the World Trade Organization that such beef is safe. The ban has been the subject of a long and acrimonious trade dispute.

Ms. Schimpf of Friends of the Earth said that, rather than hoping the trade talks will lead to looser European regulation, American food companies should recognize that the rules reflect European tastes.

“If consumers don’t want it, either you follow the demand or you lose the market,” Ms. Schimpf said.

Even that may not be so simple. John Kosmidis, executive vice president of Prime Food Distributor, a meat supplier in Port Washington, N.Y., said the company offers hormone-free beef and is certified to export to Europe.

But he said the company concluded it could not export the beef to Europe profitably, because European high-end buyers are only interested in certain cuts, and the company would have trouble selling the rest of the carcass profitably.

 
Feeding the mites, so that they don't eat the whole cheese.Credit: Gordon Welters for The New York Times

“We determined our energies were better spent elsewhere in markets where there is high demand for American premium beef,” Mr. Kosmidis said.

The Europeans, for their part, complain that the United States keeps out European products with impossibly burdensome regulations. For example, European dairy producers complain that if they want to export dairy products classified as Grade A to the United States, they must pay for an American official to travel to Europe and conduct regular inspections.

The complexity of resolving such issues means it is likely to be some time before milbenkäse from Germany is available in American stores.

Mr. Schmelzer, who makes the mite cheese part time while studying for a doctorate in theology, acknowledged the product could put some people off. The mites, thousands of them on a cigar-shaped piece of cheese, remain alive “until they reach the end consumer,” he said diplomatically. The cheese’s distinct flavor comes from secretions the mites leave.

But the cheese is perfectly safe, he insisted. German officials conducted rigorous inspections of their own before allowing him to begin selling the cheese, he said, and found it to be exceptionally low in bacteria. The mites eat all the germs.

“The cheese tastes good,” said Mr. Schmelzer, who with his business partner is Germany’s only commercial milbenkäse manufacturer. Indeed, the chef of a Michelin-starred restaurant in nearby Weimar has served milbenkäse as a dessert atop pears stewed in white wine.

If the mite cheese ever could get across the border, Americans would buy it, Mr. Schmelzer said.

“Americans are curious about everything unknown,” he said. “Not that different from the Germans.”