The Swiss Cheese Cartel

I love cheese. Many of you love cheese. But people in Switzerland REALLY like cheese. The cheese makers in this country, at one point, had close to a thousand different kinds of their delectable dairy product. So you can imagine how devastated they were when cheese exports from Switzerland dropped to nearly nothing after World War 1. Nobody outside Switzerland wanted to buy cheese, but the Swiss were not ready to give up. This lead to the creation of the Swiss Cheese Union.

The Union instituted a cartel of cheese manufacturers. But cartels need rules, and they need everyone to follow these rules. The cartel reduced the number of legal cheese types down to only three main types: Emmental (the amazing cheese that we all have come to know because of its unique holes), Gruyere, and Sbrinz. In order to make cheese, the manufacturers had to apply for licenses and these could take years to get. 

Because cheese was such a massive part of the Swiss economy, the government felt it necessary to not only enforce the rules of the cartel but to also help boost the cartel with subsidies from its citizen’s tax money. Once this was in place, the government could regulate the price and production of the milk and cheese for both domestic and foreign exports. They needed to reduce the supply of cheese in order to create demand and then raise prices. They abandoned free market competition and resorted to a government controlled economy.

But we have learned a thing or two about what happens when you make something illegal. When a government bans the production of something, it does not stop all the production of it. There will inevitably be those who create in the shadows and in hiding from the law, a black market of secret consumers and suppliers. Imagine if your favorite cheese was now illegal, but you knew that the neighbor down the street was secretly making it in his basement. 

It sounds a lot like I am talking about narcotics, but this is cheese! It's easy to see that banning anything will lead to a black market. In the United States, we have a prime example of this during the prohibition of alcohol. And we are currently living in a drug prohibition. Drug addiction is a serious and life threatening problem in our country, and it should not be pushed into the shadows of a dangerous underground market. Unsafe products cause health risks, and the seller can hide from the blame in all the secrecy. While those who are suffering do not seek help for fear of being convicted of a crime. And of course, there are the risks of handling transactions of money in a black market, and the violence that can happen when those transactions don't go as planned.

But we should return back to the cheesy dilemma. According to NPR, the Swiss Cheese Union maintained control for 80 years. During this time, the government had to continue subsidizing the cheese makers to compensate for the ongoing lack of demand. Eventually, they were funneling more money into the cheese market than they were using for their own army! Finally, the citizens agreed that this was ridiculous, and the Union was ended in 1999. Hundreds of illegal cheeses were finally edible again! And for those who love cheese, this was a reason to celebrate. Nearly a whole century passed by, and now formerly suppressed cheese enthusiasts could finally chase their dreams. Switzerland could once again grace us with multitudes of their dairy delight!

I'd love to end this with an encouraging message about the fact that cheese is the most wonderful food in the world. But I am inclined to say that there are cheeses that we will never taste in the United States. The United States government has a list of cheeses that cannot be consumed in this country. This, my friend, is a tragedy. There are many laws and regulations on many different things, but regulations on cheese may be among the cruelest.


ArticleJaron Weidner