Is cheese not welcome anymore?

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Parbleu! Thunderclap for the cheese gourmet! Recently China undertakes strengthened regulatory measures which have directly affected the long-term importation of certain types of European cheese using particular cultures (e.g. geotrichum candidum, penicilium roqueforti and penicilium camemberti, etc…).

This ban, which de-facto started at the end of July 2017 in Shanghai but expanded nationwide (and became public domain) in early September 2017, was launched after health authorities informed quarantine officials that bacteria colonies found on soft cheese were not on the Chinese white list. This ban mainly affects French, English and – in a lesser way – Italian soft and mould-ripened cheese, as well as some soft goat milk cheese.

A list of the some de-facto banned cheese was circulated by Sinodis, one of the main importers of cheese in China:

  • Fourne d’Ambert
  • Chevre Sainte Maure
  • Brie
  • Camembert
  • Roquefort
  • Epoisse
  • Vieux Pane
  • Saint Nectaire
  • Perail Papillon
  • Livarot
  • Soumaintrain
  • Stilton
  • Gorgonzola

Cheese that appear to be unaffected by this ban seems to be Mozzarella, Tartare and raclette as well as the whole family of hard cheese (Parmesan, Grana Padano, Conté, Beaufort, Gruyère, Emmentaler, Tomme, Monk head, etc…).

Of course the sudden nature of the crackdown is making all dairy industry puzzled and alarmed.

While no official statement has been released by Chinese authorities to explain, announce or provide background information about such ban, and while there is no access to any CIQ internal circulars or documents in this regard, we – as everybody – can only try to analyze the legal grounds and scope of this ban.

It seems to us that this ban might be the result of a strict and sudden application of some existing regulations – in particular the GB Standard n/ 5420-2010 for ripened cheese (characterized by the coagulation in the process which after storage for a certain period produces characteristic flavor to the cheese), mould ripened cheese (ripened by promotion with growth of the mold through interior of cheese and/or surface of the cheese) and unripened cheese (cheese directly edible after being prepared, without any aging period), as well as two positive lists of 2010 and 2011 on bacteria allowed for food use.

GB 5420 adopts a maximum level of yeast and mould (both represent major components of cheese production) allowed in food composition of products selling on the Chinese market of 50 cfu/g, while  in EU there is no such limit to yeast. This limit applies only for ripened cheese and non-ripened cheese, while it does not apply for mold-ripened cheese (blue cheese).

Since several years, the European Union Chamber of Commerce calls for the National Health and Family Planning Committee (NHFPC) to revise cheese products standards and make more precise the application of microbiological criteria, bearing in mind the variety of cheese products and their characteristics.

As the European Chamber of Commerce stresses in its position paper, “this restriction cannot be achieved for natural cheese, and does not take into account the manufacturing techniques of natural cheese, which are different from processed cheese”. significantly lower to the average of those traditionally contained in these kinds of cheese, and does not take into account the manufacturing techniques of the cheese products”.

In 2016, the National Health and Family Planning Commission (NHFPC) together with the European Cheese Industry Desk and stakeholders have undertaken a revision of this Standard, which is not completed yet – meaning that GB 5420 is still fully effective.

For blue cheese – which is not subject to the above 50cfu/g limit, problems come from other pieces of legislation – i.e. bacteria allowed for food use in China. In 2010 and 2011, the former Ministry of Health (now NHFPC) issued a List of Edible Culture in Food referencing all culture allowed to be used in food and pointing out that – beside those on these lists – only cultures traditionally used for food production and processing could continue to be used in new cultures. Pennicyllum Roquefortii  is neither on these list nor in the Chinese tradition usage. Until Pennicyllum Roquefortii  – as well as other bacteria – will not be cleared as novel food, they will not be allowed for food use in China….

We shall remind that in Europe, there is no official approval process for cultures used in cheese manufacture. Instead, each food business operator is responsible for the safety of the product they want to supply on the market.

European cheese has been imported into China for decades without any safety issue resulting. According to the Custom data, China imported more than $ 400 million of cheese in 2016. The reasons why such a ban was suddenly launched now remains difficult to udnerstand.

However, the economic impact of this ban needs to be tempered. According to Merle McNeil, director of US Dairy Export Council (USDEC) “most of the growth of consumption of cheese in China is driven by the foodservice – style foods like pizza cheese, cream cheese, or cheese making processed slices for use in food services”. Notwithstanding the increase Chinese dairy consumption in recent years, the economic impact of such limitation will remain quite limited taking into account that cheeses affected by this ban are mostly consumed by foreign residents.

In 2014, China previously banned British cheese when the food standard agency complained about hygiene standards at an unnamed dairy, but later lifted the prohibition. Italian mozzarella faced a similar ban in 2008 when the Government ordered a recall, believing some products contained carcinogens. All those bans – however – were sparkled from food safety accidents. This one is different, as its reasons seem to be more deeply rooted in a non-compliance with Chinese regulations that can only be eliminated by revising those regulations.

Surprisingly (and ironically…), some cheeses – Roquefort, gorgonzola – henceforth banned for importation into China, feature on the list of Geographical Indications (GI’s) published by the European Union and the Ministry of Commerce of the People Republic of China on June 2 throughout the XIX Summit UE-China. The respective lists meant to provide recognition and guarantee wider protection of existing territorial scopes.

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