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Cheesemakers upset by ministry clampdown on ‘non-standard halloumi’

Halloumi preparation, the traditional Cyprus cheese

CHEESEMAKERS are unhappy by the sudden fervor by the commerce ministry to clamp down on non-specification halloumi, arguing the state would not be have been able to boast exports of over 20,000 tonnes last year if it weren’t for these products.

According to Andreas Louca, acting permanent secretary of the Agriculture Ministry, halloumi exports reached 29,000 tonnes in 2018. Louca, who was addressing a traditional halloumi festival in Prastio Avdimou village near Limassol on Friday, said that the Cyprus cheese export momentum has picked up in recent years.

He also noted that an important component of this success is maintaining the high quality standards.

Louca gave assurances that the agriculture ministry would continue doing its utmost in order to achieve protected designation of origin (PDO) status for the Cypriot squeaky cheese.

He also referred to the financial aid the government gives to sheep and goat farmers to help them modernise their units and increase productivity, with annual subsidies reaching €3.5m.

Of the of 228 applications approved through the EU’s Rural Development Programme 2014-2020 for modernising farms, 134 were in the goat and cow farming sector with a total budget of over €60m, he said. Special funding of €7m to help improve the living conditions and welfare of sheep and goats which was announced last May attracted great interest with over 200 applications which correspond to 122,000 farm animals, he said.

The announcement comes after two shipments of non-specification halloumi cheese due to be exported to Romania and Bahrain were seized earlier in the week at the Larnaca airport, a move which angered cheesemakers who argue that this would be a blow to the traditional product’s sales abroad.

After the confiscation, the commerce ministry said it was strengthening checks to ensure that halloumi that falls outside production standards and specifications, such as light halloumi, halloumi with chilly or other flavours, halloumi burgers, etc., is not allowed to be sold either domestically or abroad.

Since the cancellation of the halloumi trademark in the UK, a special unit for halloumi trademarks was created at the ministry which prepared an action plan regarding the sales in the Cypriot and the overseas markets.

Commerce minister George Lakkotrypis said this week that checks have intensified on the domestic market and letters of formal warnings were sent to cheesemakers who manufacture products beyond the strict specification.  According to the guidelines, halloumi should be made with more than 50 per cent goat or sheep’s milk, weigh no more than 300gr and must be folded the traditional way.

But the head of the cheesemakers’ association Giorgos Petrou said that the ministry is endangering 35 per cent of halloumi exports with its actions.

“More than a third of halloumi exports are made up of products such as halloumi burgers, flavoured halloumi and other similar products,” Petrou told the Financial Mirror. He argued that the ministry, by confiscating the containers at the airport is essentially saying that these products are not halloumi.

“It has however no problem boasting about exporting halloumi products worth €197m which include these products,” he said.

Petrou said the ministry is endangering 30 years of efforts made by the industry to bring exports up to over 20,000 tonnes worth almost €200m.

“They are going to turn the clock back to the 1980s when the industry was exporting but a few tonnes,” Petrou said.

He said that all these years, including the past six during which the current minister of commerce has been overseeing the halloumi developments, producers were exporting these products with the blessing of the ministry. He wondered what has changed now.

Petrou also said that around 12,000 people working in the dairy industry, the farm industry and in exports depend on halloumi for a living.

He added that there is a risk of cheesemakers losing their credibility as producers and exporters, and face legal sanctions if they are not able to honour the agreements they signed with foreign clients if they fail to deliver.

Authorities are concerned that an effort is underway by merchants to render halloumi a generic product by including in it ingredients not designated by the standards. Some see this week’s seizures of non-specification halloumi as a bid by authorities to deny foreign producers the option to claim that the product is generic.

Despite the loss of the trademark in the UK, the EU collective community mark ‘Halloumi’, registered on 14 July 2000, remains in force across the EU. Under the collective community mark, halloumi is produced only in Cyprus with certain ingredients and production methods, while the producers are Cypriots and are enrolled in a registry in Cyprus.

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