Cheese is an art form to the Benton brothers. Since opening their first store in 2007, Andrew and Jonah spend as much time teaching customers about cheese as they do selling it. There is a lot that customers don’t understand.
“People think, Oh, you own a cheese store, you must get to go to France all the time and visit all these farmers and bring back all this cheese,” Andrew said.
“It doesn’t work that way at all.”
Importing the artisan cheeses found at Benton Brothers is no easy task. Simply put, it’s all about the quota. Canadian regulations limit the amount of dairy product on the market at any given time through quota. It’s a license to sell.
And that’s not the only challenge with cheese.
“We can’t import anything,” Andrew said. “We’re limited to what we can sell in our store by what is being imported.”
The quota system makes the price of cheese artificially high for Canadian consumers, said Garth Whyte, president of the Canadian Restaurant and Food Services Association (CRFA).
“There’s something wrong here,” Whyte said.
The association represents more than 30,000 members, including restaurant owners, caterers and coffee shops.
Dairy industry 101
Here’s how it works. The supply management system dictates how much Canadians pay for their carton of milk, stick of butter or block of handcrafted, imported cheese. Quota is only one part of the Canadian dairy industry’s complex regulatory framework that has been around since the early 1970s.
There are three basic aspects to supply management, said Chantal Paul, a spokesperson for the Canadian Dairy Commission (CDC):
- Farmers sell their product at a fixed price to dairy processors.
- Farmers are limited to the amount of product they can sell based on the amount of quota they own.
- Imports are strictly controlled through tariffs and the quota system. You must own quota to import dairy products to Canada.
There is a fixed amount of quota for the entire country, which makes it a hot commodity. Canadian dairy farms are each worth on average $2.3 million in quota. Current tariffs on imported cheese range from 200 to 300 per cent.
Import controls mean cheese dealers like the Bentons are forced to befriend quota holders to import the variety of cheese they want to sell.
From cows to consumers
Quota-owning dairy farmers sell their Canadian raw milk to processors who then convert it into fluid milk products or industrial products. Processors include companies such as Saputo and Island Farms.
Both fluid milk products (i.e., dairy that people drink: 2% milk, skim milk) and industrial milk products (including yogurt, ice cream and cheese) have fixed prices.
“Canada’s dairy pricing system is designed to be complex in order to drive prices up and escape public scrutiny,” Whyte said. “It’s like a black hole.”
The CRFA recently attended the dairy commission’s conference in November. The restaurateurs requested that the commission lower the price of industrial milk by 15 per cent. Rates are set to change in February 2011.
History suggests they won’t fall.
“Our cheese prices go up every year,” Andrew said.
Fine cheese in Vancouver
Juggling competing interests is a constant challenge for the dairy commission. People like the Bentons are subject to whatever decisions the commission makes.
According to Paul, there is some good news. The market for fine cheese is growing.
The Bentons recently hosted the grand opening of their second store. The new Cambie location took over the space formerly occupied by the Mount Pleasant Cheese Shop.
“It wasn’t something we were planning on doing,” Andrew said. “It just kind of happened.”
The opening attracted a steady flow of foodies and cheese-rookies. Patrons drank wine and snacked on canapés. Behind the glass the cheeses were accompanied by olives, pâté, terrines and cured meats.
As the Bentons settle into their new store they spend most of their time taking care of business and participating in community events such as Hopscotch and Toast to the Coast. The controversy over pricing is never far from their minds.
The CRFA is currently preparing to battle the dairy commission over industrial milk prices.
“There’s a revolt in the making,” Whyte said.