Thierry Zurcher, general manager of Roquefort Société, says the decision taken by the United States to impose imports tariffs of 300 per cent on the blue cheese could mark an end to the product being sold in the country.
While Zurcher claimed that the company's own interests would face limited damages as a result of the decision, he stressed that an entire industry was being affected by the tariffs.
"We have to underline that Roquefort is not only a symbol, but also an industry, with 2100 farmers and 2000 workers in less-favoured regions from the southern part of France," he stated. "They’ve become the hostages of a political dispute that has nothing to do with them."
A spokesperson for Société's parent company Lactalis said that out of a total of 10,000 tonnes of Roquefort it produced, 400 tonnes were currently exported to the US.
While not significant in terms of numbers, the spokesperson claimed that the setback to the group's import operations could be major, with impacts beyond the US.
"The US market was a very important one compared to the other non EU markets, which are much less significant," the spokesperson told DairyReporter.com. “We have to find new ways of exporting Roquefort, for instance to European markets which are developing. [It's] a blow to our sales of Roquefort, only for political reasons.”
In some circles, the decision by US authorities was seen as a parting shot from the outgoing administration of George W. Bush over the EU’s refusal to allow imports of large amounts of US beef that contain growth hormones.
The refusal comes despite the World Trade Organisation (WTO) ruling in favour of the US over the dispute last year. US authorities had already imposed a tariff of 100 per cent on imports of Roquefort ten years ago in a sign of their frustration with the European Commission.
The WTO initially claimed that as the health concerns were not conclusively backed by scientific studies, the US and Canadian governments could therefore impose custom tariffs on EU food exports like cheeses.
Despite claims made by the EU that there was now a strong scientific basis for the ban, the WTO ruled in April 2008 that these health concerns have remained unproven and therefore said the ban was not justified under its rules.