This article is part of our special report The added value of EU quality schemes.
Farmers in Greece are concerned about the fate of feta cheese in EU trade agreements with third countries after the EU failed to fully protect the iconic product in the CETA free trade deal with Canada. EURACTIV Greece reports.
Feta cheese is considered the “white gold” of Greece’s economy. The country produces around 120,000 tons of feta every year, while the total domestic production of sheep and goat milk is about 1,100,000 tons.
Currently, the country exports approximately 500 tons of feta to Canada yearly. After the trade deal between the Brussels and Ottawa, Canadian companies can continue to produce and market ‘Canadian feta’ in their country.
The CETA agreement protects more than 140 geographical indications from all over Europe. But in the case of feta – as well as Asiago, Gorgonzola, Fontina and Munster cheeses – Canadians can produce and sell their “own feta” in the domestic market.
Specific products such as feta, which is protected in the European Union, must meet the requirements of the EU’s designation of origin quality scheme, so Canadian cheeses labelled as feta cannot enter Europe.
However, Canadian producers that began using the feta label on the domestic market before 2013 will be able to continue doing so.
Once CETA comes into force, Canadian producers will also be obliged to add formalities such as ‘kind’, ‘type’, ‘style’ or ‘imitation’ to their labels, combined with an easily legible and visible indication of the geographical origin of the product in question.
“No ‘Greek feta’ or ‘Greek style feta’ or Greek flags will be allowed to Canadian producers,” socialist MEP Eva Kaili pointed out.
On the other hand, Greek companies that produce genuine feta will be able to export to Canada.
Feta from cow’s milk
Takis Peveretos, President of the Association of Greek Breeders, told EURACTIV.com that the lack of full protection for feta in CETA was unacceptable.
“It is the ‘big hitter’ of our exports, not only of cheese but also of other products […] considering that the 52,000 tons exported annually bring €350m to Greece’s balance of exports,” he emphasised.
For Peveretos, two issues arise from CETA and the future of feta cheese.
Feta is only made with sheep’s milk (70%) and goat’s milk (30%). “With the CETA agreement, Canadians will be able to produce and sell feta made from cow’s milk,” the Greek farmer said.
Similarly, Nikos Palascas, President of the Federation of Breeders of Thessaly, told Athens News Agency that Greece’s “white gold” was a victim of the CETA deal.
“The problem is that large multinational companies around the world have specific dairies and so they will ‘smother’ the market with cow feta while the milk will come from animals that eat GM animal feed,” he warned.
In an effort to calm down angry Greek farmers, Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan promised to review the case of feta after five years. However, Greeks fear this would already be too late.
“Hogan’s commitment is not helpful at all. […] Consumers will get used to eating cheese from cow’s milk and will think it is feta,” Peveretos noted, adding that the feta case should be reconsidered in one year at most.
The same view is shared by the Association of the Milk and Dairy Products Industry, which claims that the Commission used the five-year argument as “bait” to keep the Greek government on side.
Future trade deals
In addition, Greek breeders fear that CETA will set a precedent that will enable other countries to demand a similar deal for feta. This is already the case with South Africa.
Peveretos also blamed the previous New Democracy government of conservative Antonis Samaras, as well as former Commission President José Manuel Barroso, for failing to protect feta in the CETA deal and urged the current government put the case high on the agenda in future bilateral trade deals.
“We now know the background. In 2013, the then government allowed the Commission to negotiate this way with Canada regarding feta,” he noted.
In a statement earlier this month (11 July) the Greek government stressed that it had launched a campaign to revise the deals affecting the “national cheese” and emphasised that with Japan, feta will be better protected.
Indeed, with Tokyo, genuine Greek feta does enjoy full protection. But the commercial interest for domestic production is quite low: there is no established Japanese industry already producing a product it calls feta.
Sources from the Greek ministry of agriculture told EURACTIV that from now on, the government will try on to use the deal with Japan as a “role model” for future EU trade agreements with third countries.
Commission: every case is different
The European Commission believes that it obtained the highest level of protection possible in its deal with Canada, qualifying the achievement as an “unprecedented success”.
“It was a ground-breaking improvement of the previously existing situation in the Canadian market […] the alternative would have been no protection at all of such names,” EU spokesperson Daniel Rosario told EURACTIV.com.
The EU official continued, saying that in the case of Canada, the discussion was “very difficult” because the very notion of GIs was originally rejected and feta was broadly considered a generic name on the North American market.
“In this context, any concession from Canada could only be obtained by accepting a special treatment,” the Rosario stressed, adding that had the status quo remained there would be no protection at all for feta.
“Such protection also represents market opportunities for Greek producers who can enter these markets with the possibility to communicate to Canadian consumers the unique features of the ‘only and true’ Greek Feta,” the Commission official emphasised.
A source with experience in trade talks told EURACTIV.com that the “prior use” of protected labels in GI negotiations should be considered, especially in countries with the presence of a European diaspora or with certain consumption patterns.
Canada has a 250,000-strong Greek community, some of whom are involved in the business of ‘Canadian feta’ production.
The same source explained that all trade deals with third countries differ greatly and every case needs to be addressed accordingly. For instance, for Vietnam, it won’t be an issue to protect feta like in Europe but convincing the Canadians to do the same might require an additional effort.
“The reason is simple: you have some cheese called ‘feta’ that has been produced or sold in Canada for generations. Whereas in Vietnam, you don’t,” the source emphasised.