Where’s the beef?
The food sanctions imposed by Russia against most Western countries last August caused a lot of distress for me. Although right after the sanctions started, it was possible to find a few types of cheese still in stock, over the following weeks and months, that stock ran out. The shelves were then filled with Russian cheeses and also a few Swiss cheeses, since Switzerland wasn’t part of the ban as it isn’t part of the EU.
It wasn’t just the cheese. Other dairy products and produce also suddenly disappeared from the supermarkets. I was wondering what my favorite steakhouse, Chicago Prime, would now offer, since most of their quality beef was imported from the U.S., Canada and Australia. When I talked to Shawn, one of the owners, I was surprised to learn that they had started to bring in Russian beef.
Russian beef, really? I was a bit skeptical picturing a perfectly juicy grass-fed prime-quality steak made in Russia, and apparently their other customers had the similar concerns. “The majority of the people that are most skeptical about Russian beef are the Russians!” Shawn said. “We actually organized tasting sessions to show them how amazing Russian beef can taste and that there is no difference in quality.” My boyfriend reported a similar surprising experience with the quality of Russian beef at the Bison steakhouse in Moscow.
Why do so many people – even Russians – have a hard time trusting their own beef production and generally prefer imported meat? To understand this, I talked to John Haskell, an entrepreneur who is originally from the U.S.
John has been in the beef business in Russia since March 2013. “I was an investor in a land holding company which went bankrupt trying to farm. So beef was a way to keep the land in use and not lose any more money,” John told me.
According to John, most Russian cattle are raised for dairy farms. “Dairy farming is much harder. They are pushing the cow’s metabolism to their limits to get her to produce as much milk as possible. Dairy cows also spend their time always inside the stables, so they are more prone to respiratory illnesses. Dairy cows’ nutrition has to be also managed very closely.”
“For beef cattle, you just roll out the hay for the cows, and you need to understand that beef cattle need to stay outside all the time, even in winter. Even up to -35 degrees C they are fine like that.”
Most Russian beef comes from dairy cows that have finished their time producing milk. “You milk them until they stop being efficient in producing milk, then slaughter them and that then is perfectly good for Doktorskaya kolbasa [Russian baloney], but if you try to eat it as steak, it’s like a shoe leather,” John told me.
Another difference, as John explains, is that a good quality beef production needs Angus bulls. In Russia, those are fattened up with oats, unlike in the United States, where they use corn. These bulls are then crossed with local cows to guarantee some percentage of Angus genes in the beef. Angus cattle can convert food very efficiently into muscle, which creates the excellent quality.
John concentrates on raising cattle. The slaughtering and preparing of the carcasses he leaves to the butchers. “The problem here is that the meat processing plant in Tambov is used to working with dairy cattle, so they don’t even know and don’t care how to cut beef cattle properly. That is why they will pay half of what the bull is worth,” John said. “This is where the embargo helped, because it made it very difficult to ignore local beef production. There are now only two countries from which beef is imported to Russia: Uruguay and New Zealand.”
John transports his cattle to butchers around Moscow who understand its value. “They understand that a beef bull has more meat on him than a dairy cow,” John said. Competition is low and Russian businessmen are not likely to jump in quickly to replace the beef demand. The process of breeding or acquiring cows and fattening them up so they can breed with an Angus bull takes half a year or more, and nearly another year until the calves are born and able to be raised.
But how did the sanctions affect the consumer and specifically “spoiled” foreigners such as me?
For Chris Helmbrecht, the change was very noticeable. Chris, a local DJ, author and promoter originally from Germany, came to Russia at the end of 2003. Right after the food sanctions started in August, he noticed empty shelves in his local supermarket. “Strangely even products like sour cream were missing, but I have heard that they are produced with additives from Europe that fell under the sanctions as well,” Chris said.
After that, he remembers noticing a shortage in vegetables and fruits. “And if they were available, they often were bad quality and overpriced. Last week they didn’t have tomatoes in my supermarket, so I went then to a local kiosk and paid 500 rubles for one kilogram. When I complained to the sales lady she told me she also could have offered me some for 900 rubles a kilogram!” Chris also noted the selection of Swiss cheese appearing, which he thought was positive. “It is also disappearing in some places though, as it is simply too expensive given the weak ruble.” There are more cheese problems: “Russian parmesan doesn’t melt. That stuff looks like plastic and is not useable for risotto!”
Another expat from Denmark I recently talked to recalls that his kids noticed a difference after the sanctions. Valio milk, their favorite, was not available anymore and they would not drink any other milk. But they didn’t mind local Russian cheese. “It’s nothing like in 1998 when I came on assignment to Russia for the first time. The stores were really empty then during the crisis.” This expat generally believes that one good thing about the sanctions is that Russian customers seem to be more aware of and positive about their own brands.
Some people have taken the matter into their own hands. Chris Helmbrecht brings back his favorite products from his native Germany in packages of 10-15 kilograms per trip and he is not the only importer. Matthias Wintzer, a German who has lived in Russia for the past 11 years, travels back to Russia with a veritable supermarket. “Usually I bring Parmesan, ham from Schwarzwald, cheese fondue, oven cheese, special ketchup for German Curry Wurst and Kellogg’s Smacks back from my trips to Germany. They are my comfort snacks,” Matthias said. According to Matthias, the market has changed quite a bit since the sanctions, and not all for the worse. “For example, the quality in tomatoes got better. Now they don’t have these watery tomatoes – if you can call them tomatoes at all – from Holland. Now they come from Turkey and Uzbekistan.”
Matthias is in the catering, expo catering and event business, delivering Bavarian delicacies such as the famous Bavarian sausages. The sausages are made in Russia, with the meat coming exclusively from Russian farmers, produced by a Bavarian company with Bavarian equipment and know-how. “German sausage is so good because it’s butchered so sharp that you don’t have any hard elements left in the sausage,” Matthias said, explaining the difference. Their main competitors are local meat processors, which produce lower quality sausages, which makes it hard to compete with their prices. That is why the Bavarian sausages do not so far make it into the supermarkets, but are delivered only on personal order for now.”
I recently met a young American woman currently working in the Netherlands, whose boyfriend got transferred to Moscow not long ago. She really likes Russia and Moscow so far and even would like to find a job here. For her, the options in Europe are just not that promising anymore and she believes Moscow could be her place. She now lives on and off part time in Moscow so I asked her what she thinks about the food sanctions. To my surprise she told me that she thinks the selection is great and she can find many more different products than in Amsterdam. She and her boyfriend, who is French, have no problem in finding products they like, including cheeses.
It was clear to me that foreigners will always miss their comfort foods and products they know from their home countries. I have lived in many different places myself and always adapted quite well, finding local specialties easy to get used to. But even I miss an occasional product from somewhere around the world that I cannot get everywhere. So I was also interested what Russians actually thought about the food sanctions and how it affected them.
Anna, a young Muscovite working in an international company who spent some time abroad while studying was able to replace most sanctioned products with Russian brands and food from non-sanctioned countries. “Meat and dairy I anyways prefer to buy local, like Izbenka, a great local dairy brand,” Anna said. “What bothers me most is the price increase for everything. Other than that I don’t feel any significant limitations in food due to the import sanctions. I cannot find oysters in restaurants so easily, but I don’t eat them on a daily basis.”
Elena, a well-traveled Muscovite working for an international company and with a sister in Italy, has troubles finding the right yogurt. “I used to buy Valio low-fat yogurt without any flavor. Now I hardly buy yogurt, because I couldn’t find any yogurt like that in the stores. They are all with a higher percentage of fat, or have some kind of flavoring.”
Vera, Muscovite, journalist and ambitious traveler misses especially cheese, ham and olives. “Cheese is my favorite delicacy and I miss it a lot. Our Russian cheeses are not really good and we don’t have also, for example, jamon. Other products are replaceable, but prices have increased twice and are going higher.”
Vera was also unpleasantly surprised when some governors of Russian regions said that for them there will be no real effect from the sanctions because normal food is bread and potatoes. This statement goes along with a comment I heard from a friend of my boyfriend, who is from the Chelyabinsk region. “There, you'll get beaten up for just saying Camembert.”
Meanwhile my hopes are up. I recently found a new delicious brand of fresh goat cheese, made in Russia. This cheese, despite its Italian brand name, is made in the Volgorechensk region by a factory that opened in 2013. This positive experience inspired me to search for new food substitutes made in Russia, or from non-sanctioned countries. Let my quest begin.