(AFP) – Jan 18, 2009
ROQUEFORT, France (AFP) — People in the southern French district of Lozeyron are having a hard time swallowing US President George W. Bush's parting gift:a tripling to 300 percent in import duty on their world-famous Roquefort cheese.
"Tonnes of produce are going to go up in smoke," protested one of the seven local producers of the distinctive soft blue cheese. It was a hammer blow to the local region, he said.
The swingeing tariff increase, part of a longstanding trade row between the United States and the European Union, has effectively priced them out of the US market, say producers.
"The aim of the Americans is that there is not a gram of Roquefort sold in the United States," said Philippe le Guen, who handles sales at Papillon, one of the best-known brands of the cheese.
His mark alone accounts for nearly 10 percent of total production, exporting 50 tonnes of Roquefort to the United States of a total 1,700 tonnes produced.
And with the world economy in trouble this latest US move has raised the spectre of a trade war.
Certainly people in the tiny village of Roquefort itself, which gave its name to the distinctive ewes' milk cheese, are struggling to digest this latest decision by the US Trade Representative (USTR).
In this dry, harsh terrain, "where neither vine stock, nor wheat berry grows," as King Charles VI is said to have put it, the local economy is based on the production of Roquefort cheese.
Nearly 2,000 people work on making the cheese itself, while another 4,500 people work on the 2,100 farms involved in raising the sheep.
Not surprisingly then, the bombshell from Washington has been the main topic of conversation for many local people in recent days.
"Here, we have a bit of Roquefort in our DNA," said Alain Boudes, who for 25 has worked as a master-refiner in the industry, and feels very much bound to the region.
"The Americans are depriving themselves of an excellent product and it's our whole economy that is in danger of suffering because lower volumes mean less production and and a smaller workforce," he said.
Only about two percent of Roquefort's annual production of 18,500 tonnes of blue veined goats' milk cheese is exported to the United States -- some 450 tonnes.
"That might seem small, but it's one of major lines of development. The Americans are very keen fond of our product."
Thierry Zurcher, who heads up the single biggest producer, Roquefort Societe, could not agree more.
"To deprive us of one of the biggest markets is too much!" said Zurcher, who company produces 64 percent of all Roquefort cheese.
"We're sick and tired of getting knocked about because we are a symbol of French gastronomy!" he protests.
"It's a whole network that is being put at risk and, in these times of crisis, it's incomprehensible."
This is not the first time that the cheesemakers here have felt themselves to be pawns in a bigger economic chess game.
The US Trade Representative explained this latest gambit in the context of an ongoing row between the US and the European Union.
A 1998 World Trade Organization ruling that found that the EU ban on US beef administered certain growth-promoting hormones, begun in 1988, breached WTO rules as it was not supported by science.
That ruling cleared Washington to impose a first wave of trade sanctions on the EU products in 1999 -- including a 100 percent tariff on Roquefort cheese, which on March 23 will rise to 300 percent.
Roquefort nevertheless survived that blow, albeit as a luxury product in the US rather than winning a wider market.
"With taxes at 300 percent, its price will become prohibitive, moving from 30 to 100 euros (40 to 130 dollars) a kilo according to our estimates," said Zurcher.
"So that's 450 tonnes gone -- unless Americans are ready to pay as much for their cheese as they do for their champagne!"
Martin Malvy, president of the cheese's home region, has sent incoming president Barack Obama a specially sealed box of Roquefort for his inauguration. But Obama might have more pressing fare on his plate.
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