Photograph by Chris Hill, Nat Geo Image Collection
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In Russia, it's hard to get your hands on real cheese, like these wheels of Edam.
Photograph by Chris Hill, Nat Geo Image Collection

Russians Sniff Out Real Cheese as Imported Dairy Ban Lingers

When it comes to cheese, the people of Russia go to great lengths to get their fix these days. From the flourishing online black market to underground cheese dealers working from back rooms in corner stores, Russians are scrambling to get their hands on the tasty contraband. Though their methods may seem extreme, a recent report shows that black market shoppers have good reason. Up to 50 percent of dairy products on the nation’s store shelves are fake, according to Russia’s agricultural watchdog Rosselkhoznadzor.

The report surfaces at the tail end of Russia’s yearlong (and recently extended) ban on many imported foods. Western sanctions against Russia, imposed over its role in the Ukraine crisis, led the Putin regime to ban a host of western imports—among them, European cheese and other dairy products. With cheese supply cut almost overnight, grocery stores and restaurants have turned to local producers to satisfy Russia’s appetite. And its appetite for the delights of authentic Edam and Emmentaler is large.

Cheese makers looking to cash in on the government dairy bans are using palm oil, a cheaper alternative to real dairy, to make “fake” cheeses. In Russia’s poorly regulated food market, palm oil is already a common ingredient in pastries, biscuits, cooking oils and dairy products. But palm oil imports spiked by 36.9 percent in January and February as compared to last year, says Russia’s federal statistics agency Rosstat—a number likely reflecting the recent popularity of palm oil in cheese.

Widespread use of palm oil has other costs, even if it does have a smaller price tag. The vegetable oil, taken from the pulp of the fruits of oil palms, can have harmful effects on the cardiovascular system. And palm oil production in Indonesia and Malaysia (two of Russia’s three main suppliers) has led to massive tropical deforestation and a dramatic decrease in orangutan habitats.

Palm oil cheeses are just the most recent in a long history of Russia’s counterfeit foods. In times of Soviet-era shortages, local producers created workarounds to political constraints and consumers habituated to counterfeit products repackaged as legitimate. In other words, customers are used to being skeptical at the grocery store. “Russian consumers are pretty critical about the food that they buy. If they don’t know that what they’re buying is exactly what they think they’re buying, they’ll go through all sorts of tests, like interviewing the salesperson, asking friends and neighbors, looking at packaging,” says Melissa Caldwell, Professor of Anthropology at University of California Santa Cruz and editor of the food journal Gastronomica.

While the average Russian consumer may not think of environmentalism and sustainability issues when choosing a piece of cheese, they want to know where their food comes from. “Their concerns are about health, quality, and tastes. What convinces them about buying a particular product is that the company is being honest and transparent about their product,” says Caldwell. “They would rather spend the money on something they know and trust than buy something they don’t trust.” That makes the success of these palm oil products that much more concerning.

But some Russian cheese producers are fighting back, taking it upon themselves to make up for the missing dairy. A few even jumped for joy at the news of the bans. In the midst of Russia’s precarious economy, there’s no doubt that the local cheese industry is thriving: cheese production reached 180,000 tons in April, according to Rosstat.

“The embargo has definitely been good for the domestic food industry. It’s this kind of unexpected locavore movement, and people are more aware of local food, which the government is trying to push. It’s not a bad situation for the local producer,” says Anya von Bremzen, writer and author of Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking.

Still, milk producers have not been able to keep up with demand. Between January and April, when cheese production rose by 29.5 percent from the same period in 2014, milk production actually decreased by 0.5 percent. And with the devaluation of the ruble causing food price inflation, it can be tough for an honest cheese maker to compete.

“Dairy is considered to be a very healthy, rejuvenating food,” explains Caldwell, and Russians want the real thing. But when faced with two cheeses on the store shelf, with all things seeming equal, who wouldn’t buy the cheaper one? Especially in times of economic hardship, like the kind Russia is experiencing as a consequence of sanctions, low oil prices, and the declining rouble.

After news that the Kremlin will extend the food bans for one more year, the fate of Russia’s cheese hangs in the balance.

Victoria Sgarro is an art research intern at National Geographic. You can find her on Twitter @trsgarro.