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Swiss cheese makers face uncertain future in global market

Harsh market forces have hit small producers of Emmentaler cheese hard. Keystone / Christoph Ruckstuhl

Since the closure of the Swiss Cheese Union last year, producers of Emmentaler and Gruyere have been coping with the harsh realities of the market.

For 85 years the cheese union supported the cheese makers by buying every kilo of cheese produced at a guaranteed price.

But that sort of protectionism has no place in today’s global market, and now that the cheese union has closed its doors, cheese makers have to get out and sell their produce themselves.

Cheese makers in Switzerland’s Emmental region, where the world famous Emmentaler cheese is produced, are already feeling the consequences.

Over the past 12 months, 50 of the Emmental’s 450 cheese factories have closed. Most of these businesses were small: some villages supported half a dozen cheese makers. But despite being small, the cheese factories are an integral part of the rural economy.

The Emmental village of Heimiswil once had seven cheese makers in a population of only 1,600. Now only one remains, and it produces cheese only in the summer months. Andreas Hügli was the latest cheese maker to give up.

“It wasn’t that I couldn’t sell my cheese,” he told swissinfo. “But the local farmers worried that, once the cheese union closed, I might not always be able to buy their milk. So now they are selling to Swiss Dairy Food. That is such a big producer they think their future is secure.”

Hügli is bitter that the farmers, most of whom are neighbours he grew up with, should have abandoned him in this way.

“I invested a lot in the cheese business,” he said. “I’d got lots of modern equipment, and I could have kept going for at least another five or six years without investing another penny. But instead the cheese factory is empty, and all that new equipment is standing idle.”

Hügli also worries that the closure of the cheese factories will damage rural life in the Emmental. “I think the effect on our culture will be devastating,” he said.

“People used to come from all over to see us making cheese. Now they have to go the working cheese museum in the next village, and that’s not the same thing at all. And don’t forget these factories were businesses: they paid taxes to the local community.”

At Switzerland’s Federal Office for Agriculture, Christian Häberli, who is Director of International Affairs, has some sympathy for the cheese makers.

“Of course we think it’s a pity when a piece of history disappears,” he said. “But on the other had we have to think about how much we want to spend hanging on to these things. Government subsidies cannot solve every rural problem.”

Häberli believes the Emmentaler producers have to help themselves by promoting their product vigorously, especially abroad. Three quarters of the 40,000 tonnes of Emmentaler produced annually is exported.

Anton Schmutz is director of Käsekunst, the association of Swiss cheese producers. He says Emmentaler is a very special product that will sell well if marketed properly.

“Emmental is made every day from raw milk, with no additives or preservatives,” he said. “Nowadays, when we have had so many problems with food in the world, consumers like a pure product, from a small producer. They like to know exactly what they are eating, and exactly where it comes from.”

But Schmutz acknowledges he faces one big obstacle when it comes to promoting Emmentaler abroad. “The name Emmentaler is not protected. Our grandfathers made that mistake, and now there’s not a lot we can do about it.”

Cheese bearing the name Emmentaler is in fact also made in Germany, France, and the United States. These imitations are a source of frustration to traditional Emmentaler producers like Toni Wyss from the small village of Signau. Wyss has won medals for his Emmentaler, and he is adamant that the foreign Emmentaler is no the same thing at all.

“Our cheese is free of all additives, and yet it can mature and stay edible for two years,” he said. “These foreign Emmentalers are finished after four or five months; you can forget it, they are inedible.”

But the foreign Emmentalers are cheaper than the genuine Swiss variety, and Wyss worries that a campaign promoting the uniqueness of Swiss Emmentaler will only work when consumers have money to spend.

“People will buy luxury food items in a boom,” he said. “But if you look at the statistics, you can see that in a recession, the first thing people cut back on is food. I think if there is a recession we will be in real trouble.”

Christian Häberli agrees with Wyss, but nevertheless believes that Swiss cheese makers must adapt to market forces. “If our cheese is not selling because people think the price is too high, then perhaps we will have to think about dropping our prices,” he said.

A cut in prices would inevitably lead to further closures of cheese factories. In fact both the Federal Office of Agriculture and the Association of Swiss Cheese Producers expect the number of Emmentaler cheese makers to reduce from 400 to around 200 in the next few years.

“But that may not be as bad as it sounds,” said Anton Schmutz. “I don’t think we need to cut back too much on the volume of cheese we produce; 40,000 tonnes a year is probably about right. But the cheese makers need to streamline their operations.

“I would expect some of these small village cheese makers to merge; in that way many communities in the Emmental will be able to keep at least one factory.”

“In fact,” Schmutz continued, “I think we have got a really good product in Emmentaler cheese, and if we organise ourselves and market it properly I’m convinced we’ve got a good future.”

by Imogen Foulkes

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