Everything We Know About China's Cheese Ban So Far

By Bridget O'Donnell, September 10, 2017

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Late last week, news of a ban on certain cheese imports sent China's cheese-loving community into a collective meltdown. 

The un-brielievable announcement is certainly not gouda news — hell(oumi), it's a munstrosity — for those who camembert life without their favorite dairy product. We're certainly cheesed off.

Looking for the latest updates on the ban? We've compiled everything we know so far about China's Great Cheese Ban of 2017...

1. Yes, it's real.

Crying
Image via Tenor.

You could be forgiven for thinking this is a hoax. After all, an official announcement on the ban hasn't yet been made in Chinese state media, which is usually a strong indicator of fake news.

But the ban is definitely the real deal, as several sources have already confirmed to Reuters, including "exporters, diplomatic and industry sources."

The suspension appears to be imposed by China's product quality agency, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, though an official statement has yet to be made by the bureau.

2. It doesn't include all cheeses.


Image via giphy.

Relax guys, not all cheese is banned. 

But do stock up on certain kinds now while you still can, as the leftovers will likely start flying off the shelves soon. 

Among the types confirmed to be banned are mold-ripened and "soft cheeses" (AKA the "smelly cheeses"), nearly all from France — Brie, Camembert, Roquefort, goat cheese and blue cheese (including Stilton from the UK). They join the Italian blue cheese variety Gorgonzola, which was initially blocked from the country last year.

Take a look at the full cheese blacklist below, which includes 49 brands or varieties, that was reportedly sent from a leading distributor to several F&B establishments in Shanghai (more on that later):

Cheese black list

According to Cheese Republic, the types of cheeses not impacted by the ban include:

• Comté
• Beaufort
• Gruyère
• Emmentaller
• Tomme
• Monk head
• Manchego
• Murcia
• Raclette
• Tartare
• Saint Morêt
• Mozzarella
Cheddar 

One source tells That's an official list of blocked cheeses is unavailable. That means importers essentially have to go to the regulator with the list of cheeses they want to bring in, to which the regulator then has to give the green light.

And now, a moment of silence for the banned cheeses (via Cheese Republic):

3. It's temporary.

The ban isn't permanent, according to a letter obtained by That's reportedly sent from Sinodis, one of China's leading distributors of imported food, to multiple F&B establishments around Shanghai on August 28.

"We received an announcement from the Chinese official authorities saying that part of cheese products containing certain moulds cannot temporarily be imported into China," the letter reads, adding that the firm stopped importing the cheeses in question on August 23:

Cheese ban letter

While that might be cause to celebrate, it is unclear when (or if) the ban will be lifted. 

4. It's been in effect since July.

Word of the ban started hitting social media on Thursday, September 7, when Shanghai-based online cheese retailer Cheese Republic first posted about it on its official WeChat account. 

But as the Financial Times notes, the ban actually started in July, and at least one importer was informed of the ban by government regulators in June. It began in Shanghai — "one of the main entry points for most of the products," according to Reuters — but didn't go nationwide until last week.

"It's not possible [to] import from any city in China,” Cheese Republic founder Vincent Marion confirmed to the FT.

Around the time the ban went first went into effect earlier this summer, the State Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ) rejected or destroyed a total of 5.465 tons (nearly 5,000 kilograms) of cheese imports, mostly from France or the Netherlands, at various ports around the country. 

This isn't the first time China has temporarily banned cheese for short periods of time. In 2014, Beijing banned all British cheese imports after food inspectors were said to be dissatisfied with standards at a single, isolated British dairy that didn't actually supply any of its product to China. And in 2008, Italian mozzarella was blocked after a recall due to fears it contained carcinogens.

Still, Marion tells CNN this particular cheese ban seems different. "It's very surprising that they decided to block so many," he said.

As with previous bans (see: VPNs, smoking, scooters), it remains to be seen if this one will actually be enforced. But as always, only time will tell.

5. It's not just cheese.

Cheese ban - baking powder and soup in China

Other products are rumored to be banned too, include canned soup and baking powder.

And the AQSIQ didn't just dump five tons of cheese back in July — they also refused "substandard food" from 34 different countries or regions across 15 types of products, mainly in the sugar, pastry and beverage categories. Some of the items that were either dumped or returned included chocolates, biscuits, vegetables, beverages, seafood and beef. Several types of cosmetics were also turned down. Rejected items originated from all over the globe, including Japan, the US, Canada, the UK, Germany, New Zealand and Australia, just to name a few.

It should be noted that AQSIQ frequently reports how many imports they've rejected, and July's figures weren't necessarily out of the ordinary.

6. The reason for the ban: bacteria.

Lactococcus
Lactococcus lactis, a common bacteria used to produce cheese. Image via Todar's.

Seriously.

Per the Financial Times:

"The ban... was launched after health authorities informed quarantine officials that bacteria colonies such as the penicillin found in blue cheese were not on an approved import list, according to an importer."

Cheese Republic was a little more blunt about the official reason: "Too much bacteria."

The AQSIQ, meanwhile, justified its dumping of five tons of cheese back in July due to its "excessive" bacteria and coliform, microbial contamination, passed expiration dates and use of food additives (i.e. sodium nitrate).

The ban obviously affects European cheeses the most since they use larger varieties of cultures. As Reuters notes, China uses a "relatively small" number of edible cultures in food.

The banned cheeses are made with cultures unauthorized in China, though one unnamed European diplomat told Reuters that it has allowed them in for years.

Indeed, China officially set limits for yeast levels in cheese years ago, according to separate documents announcing safety standards from 2010, 2011 and 2012.

According to The Guardian, the arbitrary nature of the rules has some European officials concerned: 

"Chinese health regulations permit only a few types of bacteria in dairy products, but there is an exemption for 'cultures that are traditionally used for food production.' That exemption does not apply to imported goods, but it is not clear what made authorities crackdown on cheese now."

“'The European cheese industry is extremely concerned by this ban,' [William Fingleton, a spokesman for the EU delegation in China] said. 'We are concerned that potentially many other types of cheeses may be affected in the future in the same way.'

"There are currently tonnes of cheese being wasted because it cannot clear customs, Fingleton said. Cheese industry representatives have asked the government for clarification, but have not received any clear answer, he said."

Fingleton further criticized the ban, telling multiple media via email: “There is no good reason for the ban, because China considers the same cheese safe if produced in China... This effectively means that China is banning famous and traditional European cheeses that have been safely imported and consumed in China for decades. The entire Chinese market for soft cheeses is now closed.”

Imports make up 90 percent of the country's cheese market, with China having imported USD400 million worth of cheese last year, mostly varieties like mozarella for use on pizzas that come from Australia and New Zealand. Mold-ripened cheeses make up a rather small portion of sales as the local market generally has a distaste for them, though Brie and Camembert collectively comprised 15 percent of sales this year.

Cheese sales are expected to rise 26 percent to reach RMB5.6 billion this year, Reuters reports.

In wake of the ban, the EU is considering lobbying China to update its cheese regulations, The Guardian reports.

7. It might be part of a larger tightening on imports.

Imports
Image via Pinterest.

Cheese may not be the only foreign food product under closer scrutiny. Earlier this year, reports emerged — to the condemnation of officials from several countries around the world — that Chinese regulators were seeking tighter controls over items imported into the country, including intensive inspections on wine and chocolate.

The new controls, rumored to go into effect in October, require importers to include a certificate from a foreign inspector stating that their food shipments comply with Chinese standards for quality. Typically, such inspections are only required in other countries for meats, dairy and other perishable items. 

Western officials have suggested that the rumored new restriction on imports may actually shift the focus away from AQSIQ, which Chinese consumers typically blame for the country's frequent food scandals

As more food scandals emerge, though, several foreign brands have recently been the target of investigations by state media. Just last week, CCTV claims to have discovered that 18 imported milk powder brands failed Chinese safety tests

Formula
Are foreign baby formula brands really failing safety tests? Image via Urban Family.

Ironically, last week's cheese ban news came just days after Xi Jinping alluded to cheese during a keynote speech at the BRICS summit in Xiamen, declaring: "The development of emerging market and developing countries won’t move anyone’s cheese, but instead will diligently grow the world economic pie."

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