MOSCOW - Russian President Putin has signed a decree ordering the destruction of food ranging from gourmet cheese to fruit and vegetables.

Authorities in Russia are stepping up their crackdown on smugglers trying to get round a ban on importing western food, according to foreign TV channel.

Several tons of foreign cheese has been destroyed because of an embargo brought in last year in retaliation for western sanctions.

Much of the food is brought across former USSR-state borders

President Putin last week signed a decree ordering the destruction of the food which ranges from gourmet cheese to fruit and vegetables.

The cheese was transported from Ukraine but officials said it was most likely to have been produced in the EU.

Russia complains that some importers are getting round the ban by putting on new labels and claiming the food was produced in neighboring ex-Soviet countries.

Russia’s Agriculture Minister Alexander Tkachev said the destruction was necessary because the food was of “dubious quality”.

“It is a worldwide practice that if you break the law, if it is smuggled goods, they have to be destroyed,” Tkachev told Russian state television.

But the government has been criticized for wasting food as sanctions have created an economic crisis and millions more Russians were now living in poverty.

The Foreign Business paper wrote in its editorial that: “This is no ordinary measure. This is a display of barbarity, a challenge to society, a refusal to see the ethical side, where it is most important.”

And Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, who is usually a supporter of Putin, declared the move “extreme” and proposed sending the food to orphanages and to the separatist pro-Russian regions of eastern Ukraine.

Meanwhile, more than 280,000 Russians have signed a petition calling on President Putin to stop the destruction and to give the food to people who need it.