Amid accusations of 'fromagicide,' Russia busts criminal cheese ring

Russian officials successfully busted an international criminal “cheese ring”, estimated to be in possession of almost 500 tons of contraband.

Peter Kovale/Reuters/File
A fly sits on cheese, part of illegally imported food falling under restrictions in the territory of Pulkovo airport in St. Petersburg, Russia, August 6, 2015. Russian government plans for mass destruction of banned Western food imports have provoked outrage in a country where poverty rates are soaring and memories remain of famine during Soviet times.

Russian authorities scored another victory in the war on European rennet this week.

On Tuesday, the FSB announced it had successfully busted an international criminal “cheese ring”, estimated to be in possession of almost 500 tons of contraband. Police have reportedly seized $30 million worth of cheese products and arrested six individuals in relation to the crime. After Russian President Vladimir Putin banned food imports from the United States, the European Union, Canada, Australia, and a handful of other countries in retaliation for Western sanctions imposed on Russia due to its involvement in Ukraine, food smuggling operations began cropping up across the country, operated by individuals aiming to make some extra cash by providing parmesan and other illicit goods to the Russian public. This latest operation, however, appears to be one of the largest and most complex to date, observers say, signaling just how far Russians will go for fromage.

“The scheme appears to be more sophisticated than simply importing banned cheese and selling it on. The interior ministry statement suggested the group had been importing rennet or other food products used to make cheese, which are also banned under the sanctions. They would then produce cheap counterfeit cheeses on site, add fake labels and pass them off as banned European luxuries,” the Guardian’s Shaun Walker reported.

Essentially, the criminals were selling locally produced cheese made from European rennet to unsuspecting Russian customers under the guise of an expensive European good. The operation is just another example of how, as Business Insider reported in December, Russians are “buying cheese the same way people bought weed in 1980s Brooklyn”, and “corner stores have become black market cheese dealers”.

The bans have made foreign cheese a highly coveted commodity in Russia, as authorities launch an all out attack against illegal imports. In late July, police reported that they had apprehended a man attempting to drive from Poland to the Russian province of Kaliningrad with 460 kilograms of banned cheese crammed into the backseat and trunk of his car. The man later said the cheese was not intended for commercial purposes.

In response to the proliferation of illegal food smuggling attempts, on Aug. 6 the government launched a new policy that calls for banned food to be confiscated at the border and publicly destroyed. Numerous videos have since emerged of bulldozers squashing Swiss and engaging in acts that have come to be known as “fromagicide.” Over the weekend, food standards officials reported that around 600 tons of food had been destroyed since the new rules came into effect.

Meanwhile, Russian authorities have been busy shutting down and filing lawsuits against websites suspected of selling banned American and European goods. On Tuesday, a hotline was also established so that concerned citizens can anonymously tattle on those they suspect of peddling contraband cheese and other banned products.

Tuesday’s bust involved raids of 17 different locations, including several warehouses stocked with cheese. The news led to some snickering in the international press. Describing a video of the cheese bust from a Russian tabloid, New York Times correspondent Neil MacFarquhar wrote:

“The report included typically jerky shots from an overnight police dragnet — officers in combat fatigues and black balaclavas frisking suspects who were spread-eagled against vehicles or pinned to the ground. Heroin? Marijuana? Weapons? Nope. More like Edam.”  

Facing a dearth of traditionally imported delicacies, local producers have stepped in to fill some of the gaps. But although the production of local cheese has increased by 30 percent since the beginning of 2014, some residents say that imported cheeses are still hard to replace.

“You can make pizza using Russian cheese, but it won’t taste anything like Italian food,” Nikolai Borisov, the proprietor of three Italian restaurants in Moscow, complained to Bloomberg Business.

Meanwhile, sanctions, import bans, and a weakening ruble have caused food prices to spike in Russia, a country where millions live below the poverty line. Many Russian citizens have taken to the Internet to express outrage over the destruction of perfectly good food stuffs, and almost 400,000 people have signed an only petition calling for the food to be donated to those in need.

But Russian officials do not appear ready to relinquish the war on food imports.

On Monday, three State Duma deputies introduced a bill that would criminalize the sale of banned products in Russian stores. The deputies argued that a sale ban is needed to enhance Russia's national security.

According to Russian officials, the criminal gang apprehended Tuesday has been peddling its illegal wares since March 2015.  If convicted of fraud, the six individuals arrested could face up to a decade in prison. 

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