Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Asociación Mexicana de Queseros

As many of you know, I am involved with various cheese projects in Mexico. The principal one is in Chiapas, where I have been advising for the past four years the Ministry of Agriculture (Secretaria del Campo) on flavor profiles of two of the most famous cheeses. Another one is supporting cheesemakers and affineurs in Queretaro and Michoacan and the last one is to create the first cheese-aging facility in Mexico City along a small educational center. While many have asked me to join efforts and turn my cheese interest into a full time commercial endeavor that is completely involved in selling cheese in Mexico and exporting to the US, Canada and Europe, I have decided to stay out of that game for a while and let others more knowledgeable of marketing start businesses.

However, I do have opinions on the way Mexican cheese should be commercialized, how farmers, cheesemakers, and affineurs should be supported and on legislation that could foster growth in this industry. The industry that I am referring to is the one that produces artisanal cheese based on the protection of Mexican culinary culture. I am less concern about large dairy conglomerates, as they have already found a way to turn profits for their investors. Still, I have not been able to decide the best way to move forward, but I know we need to start an organization that can support Mexican cheesemakers and bring better products to consumers.

A while back, a very enthusiastic french transplant to Mexico proposed me to start the Mexican Cheese Society, modeled after the American version (ACS). A Mexican professor of dairy sciences suggested contacting the Guilde des Fromagers and ask them to start a chapter in Mexico. Finally, an American scholar involved with the ACS proposed to follow the Canadian example and first start state organizations that would support themselves with expertise and lobbying power and then expand to the country, just like the Ontario Cheese Society is now doing it. She offered the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association as the best American example of a powerful and knowledgeable association. I have also looked at the models created by the British, Irish, Australian and New Zealander cheesy enthusiast. They all have great ideas, but in my opinion they are missing something. In essence most of their organizations are trade associations mostly started by cheesemakers to concentrate their efforts on pushing local legislators to gain grants, resources, or to move legislation in benefit of small dairies. Few of these organizations expand their efforts to include distribution companies (food companies), in a push to court an unlikely ally in the race to sell more cheese. The problem with this unlikely pairing is that in most markets, small cheesemakers and food companies are in two different businesses all together. Artisanal cheesemakers are in the business of turning milk into cheese to sustain themselves, their lifestyles, to feed people with good cheese, and some times to produce small profits to their investors. Food companies are in the business of making a profit from transportation, consolidation, distribution, and marketing of food. The difference in business models pits the two camps in a battle where cheesemakers seek to be paid better for quality products and food companies would like to pay less to producers while charging more for processed food to consumers.

I know this reads as a familiar complain against large supermarket chains, food consolidators, investors, and consumers of commercial products. Still, I believe there is something to be said for a different way to organize ourselves and to think about the way we feed ourselves. I am not claiming that I have all the answers or that I do not consume commercial products, benefit from food consolidators, or sometimes shop at supermarket chains. I am instead trying to contribute ideas to a discussion that many times feel stagnant in accusations and apathy to have a conversation about change. Here are two sample articles of what I am talking about, in B. R. Myers' article for The Atlantic the denunciation of foodism is enough to turn you off of ever thinking about the politics of what you eat. In the response from the Village Voice's Robert Sietsema, you are left with accusations that do not help in trying to answer the underlying question of both articles: why are there so many people writing about food? If you add to your reading list this guest post from my friend Jen Boylan for Svelte/Gourmand and this video on TED on a lecture by Carolyn Steele on "How food shapes cities," you may be left with the desire to do something but not know what to do. On my end, I always feel tired and walking over the kitchen to grab a piece of cheese to feed my apathy in trying to think what to do next. I think Jen is in the right direction in trying to engage in the conversation and allowing for the hard questions to be asked by her students. However, not having a group of interested teenagers has turned me to the Internet and to writing this blog. Still, I'm not sure how I contribute and if maybe it is just best to keep eating and worry my pretty-little head with flavor rather than politics. I'll be honest; sometimes I do wish I could become the head cheese buyer for a large store and travel around the world only worried about container measurements and temperature levels, instead of humane animal treatment. Still, I know from talking to the head buyers at Whole Foods, Tesco, Provincial Fine Foods, Murray's Cheese, Sheridan's Cheesemongers, and many other cheese consolidators around the world, that the politics are always present and they not only worry about profit margins but also about the livelihoods of the cheesemakers. Heck, even the dairy buyer for Walt-Mart in Mexico told me during an event in Chiapas that they too were thinking on the best ways to support local cheesemakers, but still needed assurances that their products will be shelf-stable. So, what is there to do?

I think, we still need more transparency about what we eat, where it comes from, and the ways that our choices impact our environment and societies. It is for this reason, that I envision an Asociacion Mexicana de Queseros, not only as a lobby or trade group, but also as an organization that supports educational projects at all levels. In my head, it looks like a research institute investigating and disseminating the best practices to care for animals, and how to produce, market, buy, consume and ultimately enjoy better cheese. My idea is a think thank / consumer organization / center for the distribution of knowledge. This idea already exist around wine, with many enology institutes that produce great scholarship on the many issues relating to wine production and consumption.

The first steps to create a trade organization in Mexico are already underway. I am not longer part of that effort, because I'm still not sure that this is what Mexican cheesemakers need. Still, I am not completely stepping out and rather I am consulting with many cheesemakers in Mexico and around the world on the ways to build a better movement. A movement that supports livelihoods, educates, and also informs consumers of their choices. If you would like to contribute with your ideas, please email me. I will soon present a finalized idea that has input from cheesemakers and academics in Mexico.

Here is other link to a good article on The Atlantic by Josh Viertel on the way we need to lobby for better information: Froot Loops vs. Real Fruit: For Real Change, Don't Look to Obama.


  1. Couldn't agree more that our organisations are missing something. This is something I have been banging on about in Oz for some time - the need for an effective, progressive organisation that works to build relationships between cheese producers, distributors, retailers AND consumers...

  2. Thanks Laurie, for reading and for your comment.