MARCH 31, 2009, 9:57 A.M. ET
Looming Tariffs Whet Appetite for Delicacies -
Specialty Shops Stock Up on Cheeses, Chocolates and Jams in Case Trade Spat Isn't Settled by April Deadline and Prices Jump

Even as a slowdown in fine dining has restaurants slashing prices and closing doors, importers and specialty shops across the country are loading up on pricey items such as Italian mineral water, high-end chocolates and Roquefort, the stinky French cheese. Behind the hoarding: new tariffs expected to raise prices on a wide range of gourmet foods from Europe starting in late April.

The threatened duties stem from a festering trade dispute between the U.S. and the European Union over an EU ban on imports of American beef treated with hormones. The retaliatory tariffs, in the form of additions or changes to similar levies Washington imposed in 1999, are scheduled to go into effect on April 23 barring a resolution.

In a Lyndhurst, N.J., warehouse, the Spanish food importer Fermin USA has stockpiled 1,000 jamon ibericos, Spain's fatty, cured hams that fetch about $800 for a typical 14-pound specimen. Made from free-range pigs that graze on acorns, the hams are so prized that chefs often display them whole.

Murray's Cheese in New York hosted a farewell party March 22 for Roquefort, whose cost may soon soar.

Ikea is looking for U.S. suppliers for its lingonberry jam, which the home-furnishings chain serves with its trademark Swedish meatballs in store restaurants, and has stashed away enough jam from Sweden to keep prices stable, a spokeswoman said. Murray's Cheese in New York has ordered 300 extra pounds of Roquefort -- ordering the wheels young, to extend their shelf life -- and is starting to promote alternative blue cheeses.

Chefs and food companies have been buffeted by government attempts to regulate sales of foie gras and mandate the posting of calorie counts. Many view the looming tariffs as the latest attack on their gourmet freedoms.

"Americans should have the opportunity to taste all the delicious products that are produced in France," said Nora Hovanesian-Mann, director of U.S. operations for luxury French chocolatier La Maison du Chocolat. If import tariffs on certain types of chocolates from France, among other countries, rise to 100% as scheduled, she said the impact on La Maison could be "devastating."

EU officials say they are negotiating a compromise with their U.S. counterparts to avert the punitive duties. Such a deal would see the EU double the amount of American beef eligible for a discounted tariff rate. Currently, U.S. companies pay a reduced 20% duty on the first 11,500 tons exported annually to EU nations, with anything above that taxed at 12.8% plus €3,000 ($3,940) per ton.

"You never know, because there is a long history of this," said Lutz Guellner, the EU's trade spokesman. "But we could see a solution rather soon."

Does it make sense for U.S. food importers to stockpile delicacies? "Yes, but not yet. I'd wait until April 15," he said, noting that April 23 "is our absolute, final deadline" for reaching a deal.

Nefeterius McPherson, spokeswoman for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, confirmed that talks are in progress, and said the targeted items were chosen in part to encourage a resolution.

"The ultimate loser is the consumer," said Matt Caputo, owner of Caputo's, a specialty-food retailer in Salt Lake City that specializes in Italian and Southern European products. Mr. Caputo, who recently ordered a year's worth of chocolates and 10 times his usual volume of Italian mineral waters in anticipation of higher prices, said he has collected more than 600 signatures on a petition protesting the tariffs that he plans to send to the White House.

Nestle Waters North America, which imports San Pellegrino, has asked the U.S. Court of International Trade for a preliminary injunction to block the tariff on Italian mineral water.

Perhaps no group is as worried as fans of Roquefort, the only item on which the duty rate is slated to rise to 300%. (The rest are bracketed to rise to 100%.) Cheesemongers say the revision would make the venerable French blue, which already can retail for nearly $30 a pound, too expensive to stock. "People are saying Roquefort is going to disappear" from American shelves, said Liz Thorpe of Murray's, estimating that her shop would have to charge customers about $60 a pound to maintain its margin.

Production of the creamy, pungent raw sheep's milk cheese is strictly regulated. It is made by a handful of producers in southwestern France, around the village of Roquefort sur Soulzon, and aged for at least three months in the limestone caves of nearby Mount Combalou. "It is among the most famous and most wonderful and most noble of the blues," says Matthew Rubiner, of Rubiner's Cheesemongers & Grocers in Great Barrington, Mass.

Cowgirl Creamery of Point Reyes Station, Calif., has ordered 30 extra wheels of Roquefort, said co-founder Sue Conley. The company began carrying more domestic cheeses last year, when the euro gained strength against the dollar, and Ms. Conley has several domestic alternatives to Roquefort in mind. Murray's is pointing customers to Old Chatham Shaker Blue from upstate New York and Persille de Malzieu, from France.

Reception of the alternatives was mixed at a party Murray's held recently to say adieu to Roquefort. "The French one is close," toy designer Michael Sala said of the Persille, "but it doesn't create that kind of burning on your tongue, in a good way."

—John Miller contributed to this article.

Write to Juliet Chung at [email protected]