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Russian cheese reveals pains of embargo

dpa logodpa 8/08/2016 Peter Spinella

Russian cheese gives off black smoke and smells of plastic, yet is more popular than ever - such is the price of a food embargo.

Russian cheese makers are skimming on quality as they ramp up production to meet booming demand, with cheaper vegetable oil proving an incendiary substitute for milk, say industry insiders.

Russia's embargo against Western food imports is entering its third year and has been a boon for the domestic cheese industry, with last year's production up more than 20 per cent than the year before, according to the National Dairy Producers Union.

But cheese production has drastically outstripped milk production.

"Raw milk production in the first 11 months of last year was nearly the same as during the analogous period of the previous year," the union said in a statement.

Some cheese makers are resorting to palm oil to fill out production.

"We are observing an increase in the share of counterfeit products on the dairy market ... up to 10 per cent last year," the dairy union told DPA, noting that "palm oil imports grew 26 per cent last year".

Last year, Russia's Agriculture Minister Alexander Tkachyov "declared war" against palm oil after a ministry-connected watchdog announced that some 80 per cent of Russian cheese products were tainted with some sort of vegetable oil.

Authorities have made some progress in cleaning up the industry. Last month, the agricultural watchdog Rosselkhoznadzor announced that more than 400 dairy producers had been blacklisted.

Irina Avrutskaya, a restaurant consultant and author of the industry strategy guide The Battle for the Guest, said she has encountered cheese that burns when it should melt and gives off a toxic-smelling odour.

"When I need to check the cheese, for example, I just burn it. If it melts, I assume it's OK. If it burns with a plastic smell and black smoke, I assume it's lower quality. But this is a very simplistic approach. Of course, the product requires some proper analysis," Avrutskaya told DPA.

"Once in Kazan I bought some samples of Cheddar in the supermarket to see if we can use them in a restaurant. There was a Russian sample as well as one from Argentina," Avrutskaya said. "The Russian one turned black and had a chemical smell while burning."

The food embargo, imposed in August 2014 against Western countries that had sanctioned Russia over its involvement in the Ukraine crisis, has drastically boosted domestic food production, one of the country's few industries that has grown in the past couple of years.

But the domestic cheese market is still about a fourth imports, the dairy union said.

Duccio Orlandini, food and beverage director for the Russian bakery group Nash Xleb, said his company was mainly using Belarusian and Argentinian cheeses, but he added that they prefer to locally source less fatty dairy products, such as milk, yoghurt and sour cream.

He noted that poor quality cheese "tastes like plastic" and can have the consistency of a gummy bear. It "burns but doesn't melt," or it "doesn't melt smoothly, hence you have a grainy sauce."

A regular consumer in Moscow, Klara Yustova, said she prefers cheese from Georgia and other nearby countries, but has managed to find some decent locally made European cheeses, such as Camembert.

It appears that the Russian cheese industry will have at least another year to raise its overall quality amid the embargo. In late June, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree to prolong the food sanctions until the end of 2017.

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