Schweizerische Käseunion...aka the Swiss Cheese Union
When I can’t think of what to write, I like to flip through The Oxford Companion to Cheese until something pops out. Today, it was the Swiss Cheese Union. The fascinating articles I read about the Schweizerische Käseunion were filled with DRAMA – CARTELS, JAIL, SCANDAL, MURDER! Ok yes I added the last one, there’s no murder, but the others make their way into the story!
In 1914, Europe was a mess, and with World War I just beginning no one knew what the future held. Switzerland had a thriving dairy industry with a very deep history with evidence of cheesemaking reaching back many centuries before the Common Era. To protect the industry from collapse in these uncertain times, the Swiss Cheese Union (Schweizerische Käseunion) was established. The government-sanctioned Union determined the price for milk and cheese, which farmers and producers agreed to follow, and the Union bought all the cheese produced to sell in Europe and abroad. Thus, a cartel was born.
Throughout its 85-year history, the Union had strict production quotas for cheese factories, and limited cheese production, at least at first, to Emmentaler, Gruyère, and Sbrinz, hacking away the thousand plus cheeses produced in Switzerland to three. Cheesemakers were not allowed to experiment or make any other kind of cheese than what they had been assigned. One cheesemaker applied to the Union to add Sbrinz to his repertoire. He waited 8 years for an answer when he was eventually denied.
By 1999, the Swiss Cheese Union collapsed because of new global trade agreements, scandal, and a frustrated public and producers. It is easy to see the downsides of one powerful entity controlling something as large and important as the cheese industry in Switzerland. Creativity was crushed, it was very difficult for small cheesemakers to meet the quotas so they disappeared, and powerful officials in the organization became corrupt.
However, I can also see some positives from a system like this. Milk prices have been fluctuating recently in the USA, forcing many dairy farmers to operate at a loss. While massive industrial farms can ride the price rollercoaster and survive, many smaller farms cannot. Consequently, small dairies in the US are dying out. I can imagine that a fixed price for milk might be a relief for farmers (assuming it would provide an acceptable living) so they can at least plan for the future. Also, even though the Swiss Cheese Union had too much control over the cheesemakers, it showed intense government support for the industry. Cheese is in the very DNA of Switzerland, so cheesemaking HAD to survive at any cost. In the case of the Swiss Cheese Union, it was more than just talk, but heavy government investment.
Now, almost 20 years after the dispersal Swiss Cheese Union, we are able to get a wonderful variety of cheeses from Switzerland, showing that creativity was merely repressed, not destroyed. The Alpine section in our case is overflowing with nutty, smooth, savory, sweet, grassy Swiss cheeses and we’d have to expand our case 20 times over to fit all the tasty options out there. So even though there is good and bad to every story, or government program, I’m happy Swiss cheeses are alive and thriving today.
For the love of cheese and complicated histories,
P.S. I barely skated over the surface of very complicated issues with this post. If you want to learn more, the author here really did his homework https://thinkgrowth.org/the-swiss-cheese-mafia-1dd096425f0d. This was also very helpful from NPR https://www.npr.org/2015/04/23/401655790/how-a-swiss-cheese-cartel-made-fondue-popular. And of course, if any of you want to pull out your Oxford Companion to Cheese, there’s a good summary of the Swiss Cheese Union in there.