Instead of protecting the national cheese through the PDO, the government could have destroyed Cyprus’ most important export
The registering of halloumi as a PDO (protected designation of origin) was celebrated by the government as a big achievement when it was finally approved by the European Commission in April 2021, but since then it has caused endless rows and now threatens the prospects of one of Cyprus’ most successful exports.
The halloumi saga has been an illustration of the superficiality with which the government formulates policy – little or no thought is put into decision-making and there is no examination of the possible repercussions. In this case the only aspect of the PDO given any thought, predictably, was that related to the Cyprus problem, because the PDO would also include the hellim produced in the north.
It took seven years to register the cheese because the foreign ministry was at odds with the Commission over the certification of the PDO, which the foreign ministry insisted should be carried out by the Cyprus government and not a private company as this would ‘downgrade’ the Republic. After years of bickering and raising objections about the matter with the Commission over an agreement reached in 2015 by its then president Jean-Claude Juncker with President Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriots leader Mustafa Akinci, the foreign ministry finally agreed in 2021 to everything that had been agreed in 2015.
The government was obsessing over the imaginary Cyprus problem implications of the PDO and ignoring the repeated warnings by producers about the specifications, which they believed would affect an export industry worth more than €200 million a year. Their arguments were compelling but nobody at the agriculture ministry paid any attention, because their overriding concern was to use the PDO to help impoverished sheep and goat farmers.
According to the PDO specs, 51 per cent of the milk used for halloumi would have to be from sheep and goats; there is a transition period until 2024 during which it will be 20 per cent. The producers were furious because there would not be enough sheep and goat’s milk to cover demand and they would have to reduce output. They also explained that halloumi made from sheep and goat’s milk had a pungent flavour and aroma that did not appeal to European consumers who were used to the creamier, gentler (some could say bland) taste of halloumi made exclusively from cow’s milk.
This was repeatedly raised with the agriculture ministry by producers before the PDO was ratified by the Commission, but agriculture Minister Costas Kadis said he had promised the sheep and goat farmers, of whom there were a few thousand, they would benefit from the halloumi PDO and he could not go back on his word. To appease cheese producers, he told them that after approval of the PDO file, the government would apply to amend it, including the specs about the milk content.
This was not strictly correct, as only minor changes can be made to the file and certainly not to fundamentals such as the milk content. An agriculture ministry official told this newspaper last year when the issue of changes to the file was being discussed the following: “We can only submit requests for minor amendments to the file, but requesting major amendments is like submitting a new file.”
The producers did not take Kadis’ promise of amendments to the file seriously. On June 22 last year the Cyprus Cheese Producers Association and 11 others filed an application in the European Court against the European Commission seeking to annul the implementation of the regulation entering halloumi/hellim in the register of protected designations of origin and protected geographical indications.
This was unprecedented, another absurd twist to the saga. Never before had there been an application against the registering of a product as a PDO by the producers the PDO is meant to protect. Normally, a challenge of a PDO is filed by competitors and not by those it is designed to safeguard! In the case of halloumi, the producers are convinced the PDO will destroy their businesses.
This is the reason most of them have ignored PDO specs, carrying on producing halloumi based on the trademark registered in 1985, which made no mention of the type of milk that should be used. Sheep and goat farmers have been complaining for some time about the situation, reporting the halloumi producers for not buying up their milk, the price of which had remained unchanged. Logically, if producers were using the PDO-prescribed 20 per cent sheep and goats’ milk for halloumi, demand would have increased, as would its price.
It did not, prompting sheep and goat farmers, who claimed the halloumi producers were using powdered milk, to stage a demonstration outside the presidential palace at which they emptied tonnes of milk on the road and set fire to hay-stacks some had brought with them. They accused the government of turning a blind eye to what was going on and not carrying out inspections of halloumi to check that it was made according to the PDO specs. The protests applied pressure on the government to not carry on sweeping the problem under the carpet.
Earlier this week, the attorney-general issued his eagerly-awaited opinion about making halloumi according to the trademark specs. The opinion allowed no room for manoeuvre. It said “after the registering of halloumi as a PDO, it is not possible, on the basis of EU Law, to produce a product that bears the halloumi name, with different specifications from the specifications set out in the relevant regulations for the halloumi PDO, even if the halloumi would be exported to third countries.”
The fact that the agriculture ministry needed the opinion of the attorney-general on something so blatantly obvious was indicative of the government’s unwillingness to act. It knew that from October 1 last year that only halloumi that satisfied the PDO specs could be sold in shops or exported as halloumi, but ignored the matter for as long as it could. It passed the responsibility of taking the decision to the attorney-general.
Now there are huge quantities of halloumi in supermarkets and in warehouse fridges awaiting export that should not be labelled halloumi. Will they be withdrawn and relabeled as ‘Cyprus cheese’ or will the government turn a blind eye to the matter, which has been the policy so far, until the inauthentic halloumi is sold?
President Anastasiades will be meeting the cheese producers at the presidential palace on Monday to try to find a ‘solution’, but nobody can rule out another bad decision to add to the catalogue of blunders committed by the government to register halloumi as a PDO. Instead of protecting the national cheese through the PDO, the government could have destroyed Cyprus’ most important export.