Australian cheese makers say EU free trade deal would be an unfair deal

With the twelfth round of negotiations for the Australia-EU free trade agreement scheduled to begin next month, many domestic cheese makers fear the federal government will make concessions on dairy products to help make the deal.

Industry concerns include a ban on the use of European cheese names, such as feta and grana padano, and the removal of tariffs and quotas on imported cheeses.

“It’s going to see Australian shelves flooded with cheap, inferior cheeses,” says Penny Lawson, cheese industry veteran, of Penny’s Cheese Shop in Potts Point, Sydney.

Hakim Halim, owner of RIPE Cheese at Victoria Market. Photo: Eddie Jim

Lawson, a former executive with the Australian Specialist Cheesemakers Association, says the free trade deal will hurt all cheese makers.

The potential to remove an import tariff of $ 1.22 per kilogram on European cheese will particularly affect the young artisanal cheese industry in Australia, said Michael Cains, owner of Pecora Dairy.

“It may be free trade, but it is not fair trade. European cheese makers are subsidized to the tune of 30 cents on the dollar. European cheese can land in supermarkets at the cost of production.”

Hakim Halim with a selection of cheeses from his fully Australian cheese factory.

Hakim Halim with a selection of cheeses from his fully Australian cheese factory. Photo: Eddie Jim

NSW Southern Highlands cheesemaker refers to Danish feta that sells for $ 22 a kilo in its local supermarket.

“The only way to [EU] farmers and cheese makers earn money from the subsidies. Australian and kiwifruit farmers are the least subsidized in the OECD. This deal is not good for us. “

Dairy Australia’s Chief Cheese Price Judge Russell Smith agrees that an increase in quotas for European cheeses will hurt the country’s fledgling artisanal cheese industry.

“There is a myth that Europe – and France in particular – only produces fine cheese,” says Smith. “The truth is, 15 percent is great. Much of the rest is very poor industrially made cheese that could flood the shelves of our supermarkets and delis.

Australia and the EU began negotiations for a free trade agreement in 2018.

Speaking to the National Press Club last week, Trade Minister Dan Tehan insisted negotiations were still “business as usual” despite damaging rift between Australia and France triggered by the Morrison government’s new pact to counter China.

The deal is expected to be finalized sometime next year, Tehan said.

“In fact, as a demonstration of the standstill approach that we continue to take, I just signed our IG offer so that our negotiators can discuss it with the EU.”

Functioning as a trademark, GIs – Geographical Indications – protect names of foods such as Parmigiano-Reggiano. The EU has asked Australian producers to stop using these 166 names of protected foods since the start of free trade negotiations.

Many non-dairy foods – for example, Slovenian ham kraÅ¡ki prÅ¡ut – are not commonly made in Australia, but national versions of cheeses such as feta, gruyere, grana padano, fontina and gorgonzola are widely available.

The EU is also seeking to protect itself against labeling such as “feta style” or “gruyere type”.

Details of IG’s new offer from the federal government have not yet been made public, but Dairy Australia, the body representing dairy processors, says the rebranding, relabeling and lost sales could have a negative impact. $ 220 million impact on the industry and result in the loss of up to 1,000 jobs.

“This free trade agreement is going to be damaging,” said Charles McElhone, head of business and industry strategy at Dairy Australia.

“The Australian government is doing it to open up trade, but the Europeans are taking the opportunity to shut us down. We understand that Parmigiano-Reggiano comes from Parma and Reggio Emilia in Italy, but they cannot claim ‘parmesan’.

“They are trying to requisition common cheese names, names that are common and do not refer to a particular part of Europe. There is no place called ‘Feta’ in Greece, but Europeans do. don’t want us to use feta on our cheese. “

There is also neufchatel, originally from Neufchâtel-en-Bray in Normandy, France. The large-scale processor Tatura, owned by Bega, manufactures and exports a cream cheese called neufchatel. Under the FTA, that would be stopped.

Meanwhile, the popular brand Lemnos Traditional Fetta should probably be renamed “fromage blanc in brine” or the like.

“We can’t confuse customers by suddenly changing names,” says Melbourne cheese maker Hakim Halim of Ripe cheese maker at Queen Victoria Market, which highlights small Australian producers.

“The sector is strong and growing… this is where the Australian wine industry was 20 years ago. What the industry needs now is support, encouragement, certainty and a level playing field.

“These traditional names help consumers navigate their way into the world of cheese. If a recipe calls for feta, they’re going to ask for feta, not cheese in brine. We need time to educate our customers.”

Europeans see it differently. “GIs were established by small producers in regions of the EU, based on age-old mandatory methods for quality control,” explains Cornelis Keijzer, Trade Manager at the EU Delegation in Australia.

“It covers production methods such as how milk is processed and what dairy animals are fed on. What I don’t like are products that are imitators of our cheeses. [made] without the rules and procedures covered by GIs. “

Keijzer says that in Greece, feta is made only from the milk of sheep and goats of indigenous breeds and never from cow’s milk as is the case in Australia.

A spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said that “Australia will only agree to protect specific GI names when we have confidence in the overall market access results. which will arrive towards the end of the FTA negotiations “.

“We don’t agree on a result on the feta at this point.”

Russell Smith asserts that GIs “do not protect these cheeses, it is a denial of their origins”.

“This amounts to a complete lack of recognition of the often very long lineage of many of our current products made in Australia. A cheese without a history becomes a very diminished product.”

Smith refers to cheese makers, including Sicilian-born Giorgio Linguanti, who makes 65 Italian-style cheeses in That’s Amore in north Melbourne.

“Under these rules, I will not be able to name my cheese Grana Padano and I will have to remove Il Tricolore from my label,” he says, referring to the small Italian flag on his brand’s packaging.

“We are proudly Australian using Australian labor and ingredients. I don’t see why the government should bow to Brussels.”

Three Australian cheeses comparable to their European counterpart

Section28 La Saracca

A tribute to the aged Italian fontina, this washed raw milk cheese is aged for six months in a cave in Adelaide Hills. Aromatic and pleasantly pungent, with a soft, supple straw-yellow interior and a rich buttery flavor.

Driftwood Long Paddock

A soft cow’s milk cheese made by French cheese maker Ivan Larcher in central Victoria and compared to Vacherin Mont D’or from France. Raised in a spruce bark belt, it has a rich and creamy, almost runny, ripe center with a slightly funky aroma and resinous flavor.

Pecora yarrawa

If you like Ossau-Iraty from the French Basque country, try this semi-hard raw sheep’s milk cheese from the NSW Southern Highlands. A firm but supple cheese with crisp herbaceous and floral flavors and a lingering finish.

With Callan Boys

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