In Colombia, a new illicit product is on the rise. Desperate consumers are sneaking it in suitcases from abroad, hoarding it in their homes, paying outrageous prices online and lining up at clandestine locations to buy it.
The contraband? Dijon mustard.
A new health law intended to improve Colombians’ diets — which are heavy on meat and fried food — has led to the disappearance of a host of fare from market shelves, including the French delicacy of the condiment world.
“It’s just pitiful,” said Sylvère Belliot, who owns a bakery in Bogotá, the capital.
“Mustard is part of being a French person,” he said. “It is essential for enjoying food.”
Inspired by a push by the Pan American Health Organization to address high rates of cardiovascular disease in the region, Colombia’s Health Ministry in 2020 imposed limits on high-sodium products, with the measure taking effect last November.
The rule caps sodium for 59 products, including cereals, meats, nuts, breads and cheeses. Mustard must have less than 817 milligrams of sodium per 100 grams. A jar of Grey Poupon Dijon mustard has nearly three times that ratio.
Though French restaurants are relatively easy to find in some of the country’s bigger cities, French cuisine is not necessarily wildly popular among average Colombians.
Still, mustard is a popular condiment in many homes, and there are plenty of outraged Dijon lovers who say they are being punished.
By 2024, even stricter health restrictions will take effect, lowering the limit for mustard to 600 milligrams of sodium per 100 grams. Manufacturers that do not lower the sodium content of the affected products by then will not be allowed to sell them.
Since the limits took hold, food and industry experts said, Dijon mustard has largely vanished from stores and is not being restocked.
That is because mustard producers in France and the United States are unlikely to modify their products to fit a single country’s standards, and even if they did, the final product would no longer be considered genuine Dijon mustard.
As a result, mustard has become scarce and pricey.
A jar of Maille, a brand of French Dijon mustard that originated in the 18th century, now sells for as much as $25 on Mercado Libre, an online marketplace. And with mustard largely gone from grocery stores, Colombians and expatriates are getting creative.
Flambée, a French restaurant in Bogotá popular with diplomats and businesspeople, was for weeks selling homemade Dijon for around $7 a jar, roughly twice the usual price, alongside its lavish offerings of escargot and pâté.
Two industry experts said that with so much demand, particularly from restaurants, it was only a matter of time before larger and more organized condiment-smuggling operations were up and running.
“Everybody’s looking for mustard,” said Stephan Lochbühler, an owner of Magnifique, a chain of French bakeries in Bogotá, who said that for the past few months, he had been making his own mustard, with subpar results.
Some local producers of other products included in the national health rule have already started modifying their sodium contents to keep them on store shelves — a huge win, according to health care policymakers. Leendert Nederveen, who heads the Pan American Health Organization’s nutrition unit, defended the Colombian policy, saying it was “very well done.”
“It is the function of the government to protect the consumer,” said Mr. Nederveen, adding that 65 countries had established sodium limits for processed products.
High sodium intake increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, which is the leading cause of death in the country, said Evelyne Degraff, an adviser for the health organization in Colombia.
Still, while praising the intention of the new policy, Isabel Carmona, a nutritionist in Colombia who has studied the country’s sodium consumption, said the inclusion of certain products was “illogical.”
“For many industries, the set limits are way out of proportion,” she said.
Under the new rule, high-salt foods that are popular in Colombia, like chicharrón, or fried pork rinds, can still be sold with a sodium limit twice as high as mustard’s, despite the fact that consumers eat them by the bag. Mustard, by comparison, is consumed in small quantities.
The Health Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
But Elisa Cadena, who worked for the ministry from 2013 to 2022, said the regulation was developed using data from a national nutrition survey and in collaboration with health and industry groups.
In these cases, the ministry “should review the standard for these types of products and see if it can make any modifications,” said Ms. Cadena, who now works on school nutrition for Colombia’s Education Ministry.
Thierry Ways, the owner of La Parisienne, a delicatessen in the coastal city of Barranquilla, also pointed out the inconsistency in the new rule.
“What is the point of banning mustard simply because it has a lot of salt per 100 grams?” he said. “You don’t eat 100 grams of mustard in one sitting.” A single serving of mustard is five grams, according to nutrition labels.
“We are treating some very standard and common products of international cuisine as if they were controlled substances,” he added.
Mustard has been a French staple since the 1300s, said Demet Güzey, a food writer and author of the book “Mustard: A Global History.” Pope John XXII of Avignon was said to have appointed his own personal mustard officer, giving rise to the French expression “he thinks himself the pope’s head mustard-maker” to suggest that someone is conceited.
There have been discussions at the French Embassy in Bogotá about how to address the mustard restriction, according to Carlos Garcés, the manager of a food import company, and Colin Gavignet, an elected representative of the French people in Colombia.
The French Embassy in Colombia declined to comment.
Other cuisines are affected too because the policy also applies to many Asian sauces, like soy, fish and teriyaki.
Javier Cardozo, the manager of Hico Fish, an Asian food import company in Colombia, said he was not aware of the regulation until this year when he returned products he had already paid for.
“We are really feeling it right now,” he said. “Kitchens are running out of certain ingredients.”
Flambée’s homemade, black-market Dijon was a success. Until recently, the restaurant was selling around 11 pounds of mustard a week to individuals and businesses, and it was looking into renting another space with industrial-size machinery to keep up with demand.
But then the restaurant decided to stop because of bureaucratic hurdles, said the owner, Denis Schwebel.
Already, Mr. Schwebel said, friends of his are coming up with a Plan B: making their own mustard at home using recipes found online.
“There is always a solution,” he said.
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