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Supply management leads to kosher cheese ‘crisis’ in Canada

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Ari Lipsey, left, and Joseph Bitton, show off their Nature's Best cheese.

Darryl Chemel is a consumer of kosher food who wonders why there isn’t more competition when it comes to cholov Yisra’el cheeses.

Up until a few months ago, he said, you could buy some very good quality American hard cheeses that were tasty, easy to melt and not too pricey. But once a Canadian company called Nature’s Best entered the market late last year, all that changed.

Now, there are times when he looks for hard cheeses and nothing is available. And when he does manage to purchase some cheese, the wait is often not worth it. Many say that the quality of the current, Canadian-produced cheeses is not as high as what was available before.

“The stuff they are making tastes awful … and there are melting issues,” said Chemel. “The issue is we don’t have any choice. I feel like we’re living in a communist country, where this is what you get and you’ll love it.”

Chemel is so incensed by the lack of competition and the poor quality of Nature’s Best cheeses that he started a Facebook page called Canadians for Cheese, to discuss the situation.

Andy Rechtshaffen is also irked at the absence of choice, half-jokingly dubbing it “the cheese crisis of 2018.”

READ: ONT. KOSHER CHICKEN PRODUCTION REMAINS MIRED IN RED TAPE

Like Chemel, he and his family consume kosher hard cheeses and he says that the options aren’t as good as they used to be.

Sometimes when he goes shopping, certain hard cheeses are simply not available, he said.

Rechtshaffen attributes the problem to a lack of competition. Under Canada’s supply management system, domestic dairy producers are protected from external competition by high tariffs that raise the cost of imports. So once Nature’s Best began producing cheese domestically late last year, tariffs were imposed on imports, making them prohibitively expensive.

The issue of protecting Canadian producers from external competition was discussed recently on the Facebook page of Speedy Meaty, who styles himself as “Toronto’s kosher guru.” The page hosted a lively discussion on the state of kosher cheeses, with contributors falling on both sides of the issue. Many lauded the quality and availability of Nature’s Best cheeses, while others complained about the supply management system that is responsible for the protectionist measures.

Rechtshaffen was so upset with the turn of events that he raised the issue with the Kashruth Council of Canada (COR), which certifies the kashrut of many local products, though not Nature’s Best. MK, a Montreal-based kashrut supervision agency, along with Agudas Shomrei Hadas, which is based in Toronto, provide kashrut certification for Nature’s Best.

Richard Rabkin, COR’s managing director, replied to Rechtshaffen, saying that, “We are aware of the situation. A new manufacturer began producing cholov Yisra’el cheese in Canada, which triggered Canada’s supply management rules, which prohibit importing cheese and other products from the United States tariff free, unless there is no domestic equivalent.

Kosher section at supermarket
The Kosher section at a supermarket.

“Many stakeholders have engaged the government on this issue and they have not made any headway. Should you wish to follow up further, the best person to contact is the member of Parliament for your riding.”

Taking up the suggestion, Rechtshaffen contacted the office of Marco Mendocino, the MP for Eglinton-Lawrence, in midtown Toronto.

Nathan Bessner, a spokesperson for Mendocino, wrote to Rechtshaffen, saying, “I have reached out to Global Affairs Canada on your behalf and they informed us that a new small kosher cheese manufacturer in Canada has created a supply management issue. The presence of this new Canadian manufacturer means that in order to import cheese from abroad, there would need to be proof that a Canadian producer could not meet demand through a domestic producer. Without this proof, importers would not be granted an import permit for these products and charged excess duties.

“The way that this long-standing law was written, the lack of quality or popularity of the product is not relevant to the question of import.”

When asked to comment on the situation, Bessner forwarded The CJN’s request to the minister of international trade, whose press secretary, Pierre-Olivier Herbert, replied to a series of questions with the statement: “We are closely monitoring the situation. Consistent with our obligations in our supply managed dairy system, we are fully committed to ensuring that the needs of the Jewish community are met, either through domestic production of kosher cheese, or through supplemental import permits when domestic production cannot meet those needs.”

Joseph Bitton and Ari Lipsey, the partners behind Nature’s Best, dispute suggestions that their cheeses are regularly in short supply, or aren’t as good as the American alternatives.

Nature’s Best Cheese’s line of cholov Yisra’el cheeses. NATURE’S BEST CHEESE PHOTO

When they got into the kosher cheese business in late 2017, they made sure the cheeses were produced at a cheese factory outside Guelph, Ont., that had received numerous awards for quality.

“We are the oldest cheddar plant in Ontario,” said Lipsey. “They’ve been around 145 years and they still are winning awards for their cheeses.”

For years, consumers ate American cheeses, Bitton said. “Some people got used to the old flavours and change is difficult.”

Nature’s Best produces eight different types of shredded cheese and consumers may have to experiment with them to see which they prefer, Bitton added.

Doudou Dahan, who runs Kosher Pizza Bar in Montreal, said he’s very happy with the cheese provided by Nature’s Best. It took him awhile to determine which shredded cheese works best on his pizzas, but “once it’s right, it’s great,” he said.

“The customers like the taste. It’s more of a New York taste,” he said. “I’m extremely happy with it. My sales went up.”

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As for complaints that their cheese is sometimes in short supply, Bitton said that can depend on whether stores manage their inventory efficiently and order on time, but when supply is short, retailers have the option to go through proper government channels to get an exemption for American cheeses, to make up for the shortfall.

Meanwhile, in an email to The CJN, Rabkin stated that he had traveled to Ottawa to lobby government officials about the issue.

“COR worked together with CIJA (the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs) and other stakeholders, as well. In my meeting in Ottawa, I tried to make the case that while we should definitely foster domestic cholov Yisra’el cheese production, it would be in the best interests of Canadian kosher consumers to still have access to American made kosher cheeses,” he said. “Unfortunately, our advocacy efforts were unsuccessful, as we were advised that because Canada is governed by the supply management system, as soon as a product is manufactured domestically, the equivalent product can no longer be imported tariff free. It’s the law.”

CIJA CEO Shimon Fogel said he was pleased with the response of officials in the Ministry of International Trade to the concerns raised about the availability of kosher cheeses, including exemptions that could be made if supply runs short.

“The responses provided by the government were all extremely satisfactory, clearly demonstrating that consideration for the kosher consumer were of paramount importance,” he said. “To the extent that the law permits, the government is committed to accommodating the needs of the kosher consumer community. That includes special exemptions to account for the demand that exceeds the production capacity of the domestic market, as well as exemptions for those products and varieties, (such as) Parmesan cheese, that are not produced domestically.”

Fogel said that CIJA is aware of concerns that had been raised about the quantity and quality of locally produced cholov Yisra’el cheeses, saying that may be due to “the natural challenges facing all new companies.”

Kosher section
Kosher section

“Based on our consultations and monitoring of retail sites in several major cities, including Montreal and Toronto, we have concluded that the supply problem has been largely addressed. Indeed, there appear to be adequate stocks of both the domestically produced cheeses and those imported from the United States,” he said.

Cheese consumers might soon be getting yet another alternative. Rabkin said COR has approached one of the dairy manufacturers it supervises, Gay Lea Foods, and “they have agreed to begin making some kosher, non cholov Yisra’el cheese for the kosher market. They will be sold under the Black River Cheese brand name and be available in the coming months.”

As for the upcoming Passover holiday, Rabkin noted that he does “have concerns about the availability of kosher cheese.”

He said that COR will provide kashrut supervision for a new producer of cholov Yisra’el mozzarella and cheddar cheeses that will be available for the upcoming holiday.

“The brand is called Le Mehadrin,” Rabkin said, referring to a Montreal-based company that produces cholov Yisra’el milk, as well as a number of soft cheeses.