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BUSTED: Russian Underground Cheese Ring Exposed

Russian authorities announced Tuesday the arrest of six individuals involved in producing over $30 million worth of cheese made from contraband ingredients. The bust of this international cheese ring is yet another notch on the belt of recent events concerning the Russian cheese crisis. Last summer, the Russian government initiated a ban on Western food and agricultural imports in retaliation for US and European Union sanctions on Russia over their annexation of Crimea. For a while, Russian cheese-lovers maneuvered around the sanctions by participating in a black market for foreign foods, engaging in illicit cheese trades hidden behind closed doors. However, for some Russian cheese lovers, the import ban hasn’t been been a complete tragedy. Over the past year, local cheesemakers have experienced a boom in business, producing up to 140 pounds of goat cheese a day and selling them for as much as $14 a pound.

Lacto-geopolitics aside, the most confounding aspect of these arrests is not how much cheese was confiscated (though $30 million worth isn’t something to shrug off) or that the cheese was fraudulently advertising itself as foreign (wheels were stamped with fake labels resembling European producers and sold in supermarkets all around Moscow and St. Petersburg), but that the cheese itself wasn’t foreign-made. According to police, the ring was supplying “a product made from cheese rennet whose import into Russia is forbidden.” The milk in the cheese was Russian, but it was the illegally imported rennet used to coagulate the liquid milk into solid curds that was the ultimate cause for the bust.

A few details of this whole ordeal might seem a little nonsensical. First, why was it so important to these cheesemakers to have imported rennet if the rest of the ingredients and processes took place legally in Russia? Second, if the cheese was sold to supermarkets and other businesses with high public attention, why would they use a foreign label that was known by authorities to be illegal? While the answer to the second question is probably nothing deeper than “more money,” the first question brings up the often forgotten importance of how essential good, affordable rennet is to cheesemaking.

While the hopeless optimism inside of me wants to say that things seem to be on the up for Russian turophiles, the bust makes it clear that that’s not the case. Prosecutors have announced the creation of a hotline that will allow citizens to report any known instances of sales of banned food outlawed by the Russian government. So to all our fellow Russian cheese enthusiasts: we hope the end is near.

Featured Photo Credit (Edited):“flag of Russia as a slice of cheese” by Marina Bolsunova | Shutterstock and “Arrested man handcuffed hands at the back. Closeup” by Andrey Burmakin | Shutterstock

Julian Plovnick

Julian is a die-hard dairy lover from the Boston area, working for culture this summer as an editorial intern. When not studying English at Vassar College, Julian can be found binge-watching Top Chef (quiz him on any season and he’ll know the elimination order, no joke), refilling his coffee IV, or researching new ways to incorporate ricotta into his life.