/Are You Ready for the Cheesepocalypse?

Are You Ready for the Cheesepocalypse?

Cabricharme, a Belgian cheese that could soon cost twice as much in America.
Photo: Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine

One of the best pieces of advice that home cooks can receive is to save their parm rinds. The little leathery skeleton can be thrown into sauces, stocks, soups, beans, braises, and basically anything else that gets simmered to add a bit of savory, umami-heavy backbone. But within the next few months, guarding these cheese scraps may become less an issue of intelligent kitchen thrift and more like economic necessity. That’s because a conflict with the European Union could soon make European cheese a lot more expensive, and the cheese world is very nervous. Here is what you need to know — and why you might want to stock up while you can.

I live on cheese, but I also live on a tight budget. Do not tell me Trump wants to mess with my nachos.
Nobody wants to mess with your nachos. Instead, the Trump administration has proposed a battery of tariffs on imports from the E.U. Earlier this summer, the list was expanded to include products like Scotch whiskey and olive oil. The category that would really be hurt is cheese, with a nearly 100 percent tariff on most types of European cheese. That means a hunk of Gruyère that might typically cost $20 could jump up to $40, just in time for the holidays.

I thought the trade war was with China.
This is a different trade war. The new tariffs stem from a dispute between the U.S. and the E.U. over what the Feds consider to be illegal — or at least highly unsavory — subsidies granted to European aviation company Airbus by E.U. member countries. U.S. officials believe that these subsidies give E.U. companies an unfair leg up and threaten American aviation companies, particularly Boeing.

This is about … airplanes?
Kind of. The U.S. has sought to fire back at the E.U. for the perceived slight. In May, the World Trade Organization, acting acting as mediator in the economic temper tantrum, ruled that subsidies received by Airbus were indeed illegal, clearing the way for the U.S. government to retaliate in order to recoup losses. Puzzlingly, the parties involved seem to think the best way to do that would be to make American consumers essentially pay double for a wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano.

So I should stockpile my parm? When will the tariffs hit?
It isn’t clear, but it could be as soon as September. Many people in the cheese industry are pessimistic and preparing for the worst. Take it from Adam Moskowitz, owner of the Queens-based importer Columbia Cheese: “As an importer, this will effectively wipe out our margins and we will be forced to pass the cost on to our customer, a.k.a. the distributor, who will simply pass it on to the retailer, who will then pass it on to the consumer. The whole supply chain … is going to be hurt by this.”

Honestly, I can’t even remember the last time I ate fondue. This sounds like a First World problem to me. Can’t I just eat Velveeta until this blows over? It’s so melty!
It is true that, among the daily horrors inflicted on the world by Trump, this may sound small. But as the longtime cheesemonger and cheese sales manager for Vermont’s Shelburne Farms Tom Perry points out, the food-supply chain “is really the only place where trickle-down economics actually works — and not in a good way.” As he explains: “These higher prices will cause importers to reduce the amount of items brought in. This increases their shipping costs. This gets passed on to distributors, who end up buying less product because they don’t have the customers that can absorb these new prices.” Once that sticker shock hits, that will mean loss of sales, which could also translate to cutbacks in staffing. The reality is that these tariffs will worm their way through the entire import-export food-supply chain and hit the most vulnerable people — namely, small farmers and low-wage workers — the hardest.

But why not just sell American cheese instead? My friend brought some Jasper Hill to a party the other night and it was great.
In the short term, American artisanal producers could see a boost, but the infrastructure and production capacity in the U.S. is vastly different than it is in Europe. Pound for pound, American cheese is just more expensive. Erika Kubick, an all-around cheese advocate who runs the popular Instagram account CheeseSexDeath, points out that “a lot of these European cheeses are some of the most affordable for the quality.” She adds that the comparatively lower-priced imports “are the gateway to more expensive artisan, American cheeses.”

I thought I was supposed to eat local!
Well, sure. But Europe has a streamlined supply chain designed to optimize the time it takes cheese to move from the farm to customers both domestic and abroad. By comparison, smaller cheesemakers in the U.S. often face big hurdles — physical distance, logistics, prohibitive cost — that, perhaps counterintuitively, can make it more difficult for them to get their cheese into markets.

What’s the big deal if people just eat a little less cheese for a while?
Kubick offers this bit of explanation: “Many small shops can stay affordable because they have low-cost imports that make up for the expensive local cheese.” If your favorite cheese shop suddenly doubles its prices, or keeps prices low but makes less money in the process, it could close. If that happens, even if prices calm down, it won’t come back.

Don’t take my brie! What can I do?
Support domestic producers! While they do tend to be more expensive than their European counterparts, they’ll certainly be more reasonably priced than imports if prices double. If there was ever a time to eat American cheese, it’s now. Plus many small retailers’ only hope for making it through the holidays while dealing with new tariffs will be to sell as much domestic cheese as possible.