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Monday, 13 August, 2001, 12:33 GMT 13:33 UK
Roquefort suffers in trade war
Roquefort cheese
Roquefort prices have doubled in the United States
Sales of Roquefort cheese have plummeted in recent years.

The cheese has been the victim of a trade war sparked by the EU's refusal to accept American beef injected with hormones.

In response to the EU decision, the US introduced 100% import tariffs on several so-called "luxury goods" from Europe, including Roquefort.

Sales of the cheese have since plummeted 30%.

Farmers and cheese makers have lobbied to have the tariffs lifted, arguing that the dispute has nothing to do with their cheese.

The dispute has also been confused by other transatlantic disputes over claims US Steel and Airbus are receiving unfair subsidies.

US love of cheese

Roquefort cheese is produced using milk from a special breed of sheep in south west France.

After Germany and Spain, the United States was the third biggest overseas market for Roquefort cheese.

Before the punitive tariff was imposed, 460 tonnes of its cheese was sold there.

Sales fell after the higher taxes roughly doubled the price of the cheese in US stores.

In addition, competitors are taking advantage of Roquefort's problems by offering blue cheese alternatives.

Roquefort executives say it will take years to recapture lost market share in the US once the sanctions are dropped.

Free Trade?

Farmers and cheese makers have lobbied in Washington and Brussels to have the sanctions lifted, but to no avail.

Erick Boutry, president of the Roquefort Cheese association, told the BBC's World Business Report that the situation made no sense.

"This free trade thing is crazy. How can we say want free trade and this is the main purpose of the World Trade Organisation, and put tariffs on products with no subsidies. For us it is unbelievable."

Town of cheese

The town of Roquefort depends on cheese for its prosperity.

The blue cheese label is the biggest employer in the region and provides nearly 2,000 full time jobs for people in one of the most isolated areas in France.

The farmers who provide the high quality milk which goes into Roquefort cheese are being squeezed.

They have been forced to reduce the price of their milk as Roquefort tries to find ways of cutting costs and keeping its cheese on shelves in the US at affordable prices.

As farmer Joel Soulie explained to BBC World Service's World Business Report, farmers feel as though they are being punished because they are a soft target.

Farmers find it perfectly unjust to see markets closed for reasons which have nothing to do with farming

Anne Richard
"We feel we have been taken hostage, by a measure involving two products which have nothing in common, because one is Roquefort and the other is American beef with hormones which wants to come on our territory," Joel Soulie said.

High standards

The situation facing the cheese producers is all the more remarkable because Roquefort blue cheese production has little in common with the mass production farming practices that in recent years has triggered consumer panic.

Many farmers are now bewildered by the sanctions, according to Anne Richards, whose job it is to ensure farmers stick to high standards.

"We push them to produce a high quality milk which they do, feed their sheep correctly and only on natural grass from the local soil, and a lot of work is done in the production process.

"And they find it perfectly unjust to see markets closed for reasons which have nothing to do with farming," she told World Business Report.

See also:

13 Jul 00 | Business
Trade war set to escalate
31 Jan 00 | Sci/Tech
Europe ponders total US meat ban
20 Jul 99 | The Economy
EU boycott call over US tariffs
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