Champagne is to cheap sparkling wine what halloumi is to bland, generic ‘white’ or ‘squeaky’ cheese.
It is the desire to make such an ambitious statement true, in law at least, that lies at the heart of Cyprus’ long convoluted fight to legally safeguard halloumi as a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) foodstuff and see off all pale imitators who dare to presume to use its name.
The problem is that when Cyprus applied for its halloumi PDO with the European Commission back in 2014, the government set the bar so high in a short-sighted attempt to ensure foreign competitors could never reach it that it included in its application specifications so strict that not even its own farmers can meet them.
The very thing that is supposed to protect Cyprus’ ‘white gold’ — the export of which is worth 200 million euros a year — is what will destroy it. When Cyprus’ farmers fail to meet the specifications set out by their very own government, foreign competitors will file objections. They will win.
So badly thought out was our application that all it has done so far is to pit cheese producers and cow farmers against sheep and goat farmers over modes of production. And then there’s the Cyprus problem element – Greek Cypriot halloumi versus the Turkish Cypriot hellim.
A PDO offers the highest level of protection for a product – higher than, for instance, a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) – and to be sure you can be worthy of that, the production methods, the ingredients and the geographical location have to be very specific and stringent.
And we certainly made sure of those in our PDO application. Our file stipulates that milk from Cyprus breeds of sheep and goats must be used, but then we had to cull local breeds because of scrapie some years ago. Breeds from abroad were then brought in, but we’ve already failed to meet one specification even before our application is accepted.
Our file stipulates five types of plants the animals should graze on. Three of these plants are protected.
The impossible list goes on.
But the absurdity of these specifications pales into insignificance compared to one of the biggest challenges of all: the type of milk used in halloumi production.
Our PDO file dictates that ‘traditional’ halloumi should comprise 51 per cent sheep and goats’ milk and 49 per cent cow’s milk. The annual production of sheep and goats’ milk is about 60 million litres of which 10 million litres are used for other dairy products. This leaves just 50 million litres for halloumi production, which means 100 million litres (when the 49 per cent cow’s milk is added) would be available.
At present – in what is a transitional period – 80 per cent cow’s milk and 20 per cent sheep and goats’ milk, is required. More than 200 million litres are available, producing 34,000 tonnes of halloumi.
We cannot produce more goat and sheep’s milk and this means that under the final 51 to 49 per cent specifications, production would shrink by more than 50 per cent and so would annual revenue. All this in an export market that has expanded massively in recent years and reached as far as China.
Big producers, 10 of which account for 90 per cent of halloumi exports, have warned that half of the cheese factories, employing 13,000 people, will close down should the final PDO specifications be enforced.
If the infighting over halloumi in the Republic is insoluble, so too — not surprisingly — is the Cyprus problem layer. The inclusion of Turkish Cypriot hellim in the PDO application filed with the European Commission has created a fight that is little to do with cheese but all about recognition and trade regulations with the north.
European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker thought he had a deal in 2015 allowing a temporary amendment to the Green Line Regulations concerning hellim production and exports. He didn’t.
Among a host of demands, the government’s insists halloumi produced in the north must be exported via the ports under the control of the Republic. If hellim produced in the north is not exported through legal ports and is certified and approved in the north it would amount to Taiwanification.
The government also demanded that the PDO agreement be restricted only to hellim, fearing a host of PDOs for other products from the north. The government has also insisted that the six-monthly report by the foreign company that would certify the standards of hellim produced in the north should be submitted first to the Cyprus government which would then send these to the commission.
These are not demands guaranteed to reach a speedy conclusion.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. This week commerce minister Giorgos Lakkotrypis said there are 99 ongoing court cases relating to the trademark on halloumi – a separate but related issue.
A PDO application usually takes a few months to process. With halloumi it’s been over five years and counting. It has now seen off one European Commission president.
None of which addresses the most pertinent question of all. If it’s a race against time to get the PDO, what happens if we win it?