It’s no joke. The U.S. is threatening to slap a 100 percent tariff on European Union cheeses, and importers say the decision could come as early as next week. Brace yourself to pay double for Parmigiano-Reggiano, your holiday Stilton and Gouda. The targeted cheeses include most of what we get from France, Italy, Spain and the U.K. Importers and retailers are justifiably frantic. How can they place orders, print catalogs, run a business with such uncertainty? You can’t stockpile Brie.
What can you, the consumer, do? Monday, August 12, is the FINAL day for public comment. Please make your voice heard today on the government’s Request for Comments web page. Look for the blue “Comment Now!” button in the upper right corner.
Cathy Gaffney, a vice president at New York-based Wegmans Food Markets, estimates that the proposed action will affect 90 percent of the EU cheeses that the U.S. imports. “It’s a big net they’re casting,” says Gaffney. “It’s virtually every cheese from the EU.” Pasta, whiskeys, olives and jams from the EU are also among the tariff targets.
Oddly, the looming crisis has its roots in an aviation-industry dispute. The U.S. government argues that some European nations illegally gave tax breaks and other incentives to Airbus, and in a victory for the U.S., the World Trade Organization agreed. The proposed tariffs are intended to punish Europe for what U.S. trade reps say is continued non-compliance, but American cheese distributors, retailers and consumers may suffer most of the blows.
“I’m trying to be the calm one because my customers are panicking,” says Brad Dubé of Food Matters Again, a New York-based distributor of European artisan cheese. “We all know that a 100 percent tariff could effectively end the trade in that cheese.”
Importers like Dubé are anxiously determining their orders for the fourth quarter, by far the busiest season in the specialty-cheese business. “If we order 800 kilos of Gouda for the beginning of October and the tariff hits, that cheese will be almost unsellable,” says Dubé.
Not surprisingly, some American dairy farmers support the tariff plan. Executives of the National Milk Producers Federation, a lobbying organization, have testified in favor. In fact, NMPF urged the Federal Government to put even more cheeses on the hit list. Apparently, NMPF members—mostly large U.S. dairies—believe that high import prices will steer American shoppers to domestic alternatives. But the outcome may not be so clear-cut. Some domestic producers fear that distributors will hike delivery costs to compensate for half-empty trucks. Retailers worry that consumer demand for alternatives will send U.S. cheese prices soaring.
“We are thinking that there will be a resolution within two weeks,” says Carlos Yescas, program director for Oldways Cheese Coalition, which advocates for traditional cheeses and cheesemaking. “Once tariffs are implemented, something substantial would have to happen to lift them. The tariff on Roquefort during the Bush Administration lasted 10 years. There had to be a change of President for them to be lifted.”
Not sure how to compose or submit a Comment? Oldways has some helpful FAQs about the tariffs and a suggested Comment template. Time to act.