Something Is Rotten in Roquefort

By Christina White

To a visitor with an untrained eye, Robert Glandières' 740 sheep look like--well, sheep. But they all belong to the Lacaune breed--raised nowhere but in this sparsely populated strip of southern France, and the only one whose milk is allowed in the production of Roquefort cheese. Farmers start milking their sheep by the last week of December. Until July, when their udders run dry for five months, each animal gives a liter of milk a day--enough to make a third of a round of the pungent product that is guarded by the "appellation d'origine contrôlée" (AOC). The milk from Glandières' sheep sells at almost four times the price of cows' milk--used in other blue cheeses--and the designation of origin guarantees a constant demand. "The AOC sets it apart," says Glandières, as his sheep bleat for their dinner.

But something is rotten in Roquefort. The cheesemakers have been struggling ever since the U.S. slapped 100% duties on Roquefort imports in July, 1999, in retaliation for the European Union's refusal to import hormone-fed beef. The quasi-medieval Roquefort farmers have fought back with every modern weapon they can lay hands on. In the process, they have changed the cheese's image from stodgy to downright hip. They have produced an unlikely media star, José Bové. And they're inspiring a host of imitators: The U.S. is taxing more than 60 other European items, whose producers are trying to follow the Roquefort lead.

Roquefort is the lifeblood of the Aveyron region where it is made, providing a living for more than 10,000 people. Some 200,000 tourists annually come to savor the king of cheeses and the cheese of kings, as it is known in France. The stone buildings lining the streets of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, population 800, sit atop natural caves where penicillium roqueforti, the blue mold that gives the cheese its name, permeates the 18,250 metric tons of cheese produced here every year.

Every ton carries the weight of tradition. Roquefort was the first cheese in France to be given the AOC, back in 1925, but its fame dates back centuries. Legend tells of a young shepherd who chased a maiden and forgot his bread and cheese in a cave. When he came back from his pursuit (without the girl), he found his meal in the cave covered with mold, but was so hungry that he ate it anyway and thus discovered Roquefort. In 1411, Charles VI signed a charter protecting Roquefort makers from inferior competition.

Too bad Charles couldn't protect them from global trade wars. When Europe snubbed American beef, Washington cried foul, eventually winning permission from the World Trade Organization to recoup up to $116.8 million in duties by taxing European products. Roquefort was on the hit list, along with other French gourmet goodies such as foie gras, truffles, Breton shallots, and mustard. The 100% tax effectively doubled the price of Roquefort on American shelves. Farmers complain that the U.S. action has nothing to do with their product. "It is unjust to take Roquefort cheese producers hostage in the battle over beef hormones," says Bové, who grabbed France's attention when he and his compatriots from the Sheep Milk Producers Union trashed a McDonald's outlet--a symbol of American capitalism--in neighboring Millau two weeks after the import duty took effect.

The cheesemakers quickly found themselves in a box. Roquefort is a valuable brand, and the AOC guarantees that every aspect of the cheesemaking is meticulously regulated and conforms to tradition, leaving them no flexibility to cut costs. The milk can only come from Lacaune sheep, and each round must be hand-wrapped in foil and aged in the natural caves of the Combalou hills. "We can't make it anywhere else," says Anne Richard, secretary general of the Roquefort Confederation, a 71-year-old organization grouping all the sheep farmers and the seven cheese companies. "We have no way to adapt."

Sales have yo-yoed since the tax was imposed, tumbling by more than 26% in 2000. Before the tax, the U.S. consumed 460 metric tons a year, and it's still the third-biggest importer, after Spain and Germany. Laurent Reversat, a sheep farmer and member of the Sheep Milk Producers Union, estimates that the tax is costing him and his fellow farmers a month's earnings per year. And because the price of the milk is fixed, they have no way to make up their loss.

Five months after the duties were imposed, Roquefort producers dropped the price of their U.S.-bound exports by $4 a kilo, from an average of $10. Each year, this discount has cost the industry $1.8 million, equivalent to its entire pre-1999 advertising budget. Even though trans-Atlantic exports represent only a small portion of sales, the industry wants to guard its share of the most prestigious market on earth. "The worst is not to lose money but not even to be present," says Erick Boutry, director of La Société, the biggest producer and an exporter to the U.S. for more than 100 years.

Faced with such losses, the confederation decided to suspend advertising and use the savings to compensate producers. The question then became how to keep their cheese--and cause--in people's minds. The confederation and Bové's group of sheep farmers argued over the best way to publicize the struggle, with the former resisting any action that might be called violent. But Bové and his cohorts prevailed, and on Aug. 12, 1999, they trashed the McDonald's, making news worldwide. The French media kept the weathered faces of the disgruntled farmers in the press for months. "If we hadn't committed that act of resistance, we couldn't have communicated to the French market," says Alain Soulié, spokesman for the Sheep Milk Producers Union, a farmer himself and Bové's right-hand man.

In the process, Roquefort has taken on the image of Bové himself, a militant confronting the Establishment. "Now it's seen as a product that's cool," says Boutry. Bové's star has risen even faster. His wide moustache and ruddy cheeks give him the peasant look, but he has little time to spend in the fields these days. In fact, he's rarely in France, jetting to anti-globalization protests around the world. In France, where the public rejects genetically modified food, he has become the embodiment of the crusade against "malbouffe," or fast-food culture. He fights hormone-fed beef, the product that led to the Roquefort tax, because "it is an affront to our health," he says.

Bové's ability to visit his farm may be curbed even more if he serves an eight-month sentence handed down in November for the destruction of transgenic rice crops. So Soulié, who's as contemplative as Bové is flamboyant, has taken over the Roquefort battle. He recently scored a success: After months of lobbying, Agriculture Minister Jean Glavany on Oct. 18 promised the producers $950,000 to help compensate them for losses--far less than the $4 million requested, but enough for the Confederation to launch its first advertising campaign since 1999 on Dec. 7. "It's the first official recognition that Europe has a part in the responsibility for our loss," says Soulié.

Now, the challenge is to capitalize on that sense of responsibility. The Roquefort aid package won't go very far as long as the annual $1.8 million losses continue. A round-table discussion promised by Glavany in September with all the industries affected by the tax has yet to take place. Frustrated, the producers of all the targeted products have filed a formal complaint with the European Commission, claiming discrimination by the U.S. Charles VI would have been proud: Roquefort, the king of cheeses, is helping lead a great crusade.

White is a correspondent in the Paris bureau.

Edited by Harry Maurer

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.