A new illicit product is on the rise in Colombia. Desperate consumers are stashing it in their suitcases from overseas, hoarding it in their homes, paying outrageous prices online and queuing in clandestine places to buy it.
smuggling? Dijon mustard.
A new health law intended to improve Colombians’ diets, rich in meat and fried foods, has led to the disappearance of a myriad of products from market shelves, including the French delicacy of the world of condiments.
« It’s just pitiful, » said Sylvère Belliot, who owns a bakery in Bogota, the capital.
« Mustard is part of being a Frenchman, » he said. « It’s essential for enjoying food. »
Inspired by a push by the Pan American Health Organization to address high rates of cardiovascular disease in the region, the Colombian Ministry of Health imposed limits on high-sodium products in 2020, with the measure going into effect last November.
The rule limits sodium for 59 products, including grains, meats, nuts, breads and cheeses. Mustard must contain less than 817 milligrams of sodium per 100 grams. A jar of Gray Poupon Dijon mustard has nearly three times that ratio.
While French restaurants are relatively easy to find in some of the country’s larger cities, French cuisine isn’t necessarily wildly popular with the average Colombian.
Still, mustard is a popular condiment in many homes, and there are many outraged Dijon lovers who say they’ve been punished.
Even stricter health restrictions will come into effect by 2024, lowering the limit for mustard to 600 milligrams of sodium per 100 grams. Manufacturers who fail to lower the sodium content of the affected products by that date will not be authorized to sell them.
Since the limits set in, food and industry experts said, Dijon mustard has largely disappeared from stores and gone unreplenished.
This is because mustard producers in France and the United States are unlikely to modify their products to fit the standards of a single country, and even if they did, the final product would no longer be considered true Dijon mustard.
As a result, mustard has become scarce and expensive.
A jar of Maille, a brand of French Dijon mustard that originated in the 18th century, now sells for up to $25 on Mercado Libre, an online marketplace. And with mustard largely gone from grocery stores, Colombians and expats are getting creative.
Flambée, a French restaurant in Bogotá frequented by diplomats and businessmen, has been selling homemade Dijon for weeks about $7 a jar, about double the normal price, along with its sumptuous offerings of snails and pâtés.
Two industry insiders said that with so much demand, particularly from restaurants, it was only a matter of time before larger, more organized condiment smuggling operations became operational.
« Everyone is looking for mustard, » said Stephan Lochbühler, owner of Magnifique, a chain of French bakeries in Bogota, who said he’s been making his own mustard for the past few months, with poor results.
Some local producers of other products included in the national health standard have already begun tweaking their sodium content to keep them on store shelves — a big win, according to health policymakers. Leendert Nederveen, who heads the nutrition unit of the Pan American Health Organization, defended the Colombian policy, saying it was « very well done ».
« It’s the government’s job to protect the consumer, » Nederveen said, adding that 65 countries have set 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, a health organization consultant in Colombia.
However, while lauding the intent of the new policy, Isabel Carmona, a Colombian nutritionist who has studied sodium consumption in the country, said the inclusion of some products was « illogical ».
« For many sectors, the limits set are grossly disproportionate, » he said.
Under the new rule, high-salt foods that are popular in Colombia, such as chicharrón, or fried pork rinds, can still be sold with a sodium limit twice that of mustard, despite the fact that consumers eat them in bags. 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 changes can be made, » said Ms. Cadena, who now works on school nutrition for Colombia’s Ministry of Education.
Thierry Ways, owner of La Parisienne, a delicatessen in the coastal city of Barranquilla, also pointed out the inconsistency of the new rule.
« What’s 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 go. » 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, food writer and author of the book « Mustard: A Global History. » Pope John XXII of Avignon is said to have appointed his own personal mustard officer, giving rise to the French expression “he thinks he is the pope’s boss mustard” to suggest that someone is presumptuous.
There have been discussions at the French embassy in Bogotá about how to address the mustard restriction, according to Carlos Garcés, director 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 also affected because the policy also applies to many Asian sauces, such as soy, fish and teriyaki.
Javier Cardozo, the manager of Hico Fish, an Asian food import company in Colombia, said he was unaware of the regulation until this year when he returned the products. he had already paid.
« We really feel it right now, » she said. « The kitchens are running out of some ingredients. »
Flambée’s homemade and black-market Dijon was a hit. Until recently, the restaurant was selling about 11 pounds of mustard a week to individuals and businesses, and was looking to lease another space with industrial-sized machinery to keep up with demand.
But then the restaurant decided to stop due to bureaucratic obstacles, said the owner, Denis Schwebel.
Already, Mr. Schwebel said, his friends are coming up with a Plan B: Make your own mustard at home using recipes found online.
« There’s always a solution, » he said.