Russians look to Swiss for cheese


ZURICH — At Intercheese’s headquarters in Switzerland, the phone barely stops ringing these days. A Russian voice is usually at the other end.

Since Aug. 7, when Vladimir Putin’s government banned many food imports from nations supporting sanctions because of the country’s role in the Ukraine crisis, at least 14 Russian importers have contacted Intercheese. The reason for the surge in business: Switzerland hasn’t joined the European Union, the United States, Canada, Australia and Norway in penalizing Russia.

“Russian importers are looking for the cheeses they can’t get from the Europeans anymore — mozzarella, gouda and edam,” said Daniel Daetwyler, managing director at closely held Intercheese. The Beromuenster-based company sold as much as 20 tons of cheese to Russia in 2013 and will increase sales to the country of the varieties most affected by the EU embargo, even though it won’t be able to meet the demand, Daetwyler said.

Cheese is Switzerland’s most important agricultural export and the country’s neutrality is providing local producers with an edge in selling Gruyere and Emmental to 142.5 million Russians. Swiss producers shipped 431 metric tons of cheese to Russia last year, according to the Swiss Customs Administration, just a fraction of the almost 63,000 tons exported globally.

“If the embargo remains, it’s possible we’ll export more cheese to Russia,” Jacques Bourgeois, director of the Swiss Farmer’s Union, said by phone, adding that gruyere is among the Swiss cheeses with most potential as exports have increased in recent years. “But Switzerland is a small country, we can’t just double production from one day to another. If there’s more demand, of course we’ll have to see that we can deliver. We’ll be pleased about every additional kilo we can export.”

Russia imported $25 billion of products on the banned list last year, $9.5 billion of which came from nations now blacklisted, according to Capital Economics Ltd. estimates.