Russian Police Bust a Criminal Cheese Ring

The government’s war on (imported) cheese

Illegally imported packages of ham and cheese are seized at Pulkovo airport in St. Petersburg, Russia. (Reuters)

Russian police busted a criminal cheese gang and seized $30 million of contraband cheddar. Six people in Moscow have been arrested for smuggling in foreign rennet, an ingredient used for cheese production that’s banned under counter-sanctions, and selling cheese made with the contraband using counterfeit labels. The Guardian notes that this particular group of criminals were more sophisticated than the typical cheese smuggler: They sold their cheap locally produced cheese to Russians disguised as luxury items imported from Europe.

The state of cheese in Russia has gotten a lot of attention this year, with the Russian government trying to bust black-market cheese dealers in bodegas and online. Earlier this month, on the first anniversary of the ban on Western food products, the government aired footage on national television of a bulldozer destroying illegally imported cheese. President Vladimir Putin also ordered foreign ham and fruits to be burned, amid criticism that the illegal foods could have been donated to those living in poverty. The counter-sanctions were in retaliation to Western sanctions over the annexation of Crimea in Ukraine.

This has led to a surge in local production: State statistics show that cheese production increased by 30 percent in the first four months of 2014. But savvy Russians have reported that pizza made with local cheese just doesn’t taste the same.

It’s easy to see where the cheese gang saw opportunity: decreased supply, paired with steady demand for a product that’s hard to substitute. In Russia, cheese demand—just like demand for any banned commodity or substance—has given rise to black markets and criminal activities.