Roquefort Revolution

Trade policy folly


Right before he left the White House, George W. Bush dealt a harsh blow to lovers of Roquefort, the finest of the stinky French blue cheeses. As part of an ongoing trade spat over the European Union's refusal to import U.S. beef, the Bush administration imposed a 300 percent tariff on the cheese, scheduled to take effect on March 23. The World Trade Organization approved the tax spike, consistent with its previous ruling that concerns about hormone and antibiotic use are not legitimate reasons for Europe to refuse American beef.

When news of the tariff broke, Jill Erber, owner of Cheesetique in Alexandria, Virginia, fired off an email message to her customers. "Obviously, Roquefort is a teeny tiny portion of imported food in the U.S., so why pick on this poor little cheese and, by association, the 600-person town of Roquefort?" she wrote. "It's called symbolism, my friends. Roquefort, like foie gras and truffles, simply says, 'France.'" The symbolic French cheese isn't the only casualty of the trade skirmish. Several other products associated with particular European nations may also be hit by punitive tariffs, including Irish oatmeal, Italian sparkling water, and French foie gras (or, as the new trade rules call it, "fatty livers of ducks and geese").

Skating close to the deadline, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative announced in mid-March that the Roquefort surcharge would be postponed for a month. But prices already have skyrocketed, and at press time, with a new deadline looming, the situation did not look good for American lovers of French cheese. As Cheestique's Erber says: "Remember: Protectionism is bad. Roquefort is good. Long live the latter!"