Cyprus farmers warn of halloumi shortages over EU protection plans

Grilled and golden brown, it’s become a much-loved staple of British barbeques and summer salads, but all is not well in the hallowed world of halloumi.

In Cyprus, which claims to be the true home of the distinctive squeaky cheese, a battle has broken out over whether to tighten up the rules that govern how it is produced.

On one side is the Cypriot government, which is pushing for the island’s rubbery “white gold” to be given an EU badge of authenticity known as Protected Designation of Origin.

The objective is to protect Cypriot halloumi from foreign imitators – lookalike products on the market such as “grilloumi” and “white grill cheese”.

On the other side are cow herders and cheese producers, who say the new regulations are so exacting that they cannot be met and warn that the island’s halloumi sector will be brought to its knees.

They say the proposed rules are not only too tough, they are in some cases farcical.

There would be a requirement, for instance, for sheep, goats and cows to eat five specific types of plants as they graze – but three of those are protected species.

There is a stipulation that milk should come from certain Cypriot breeds of sheep and goats – but they are now in short supply after local herds were culled following an outbreak of scrapie disease a decade ago.

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Round discs of halloumi – produced specifically for barbeques and known as “burger halloumi” – would not be allowed because they are not deemed to be traditional.

“If the new designation is adopted, it will be a disaster for halloumi makers,” Giorgos Petrou, the president of the Cyprus Dairy Producers Association, told The Telegraph.

“It would cut exports by 60 per cent because there will be a lot less halloumi being produced.”

That’s because under the PDO proposal, halloumi will be required to contain 50 per cent goat and sheep milk, rather than the 20 per cent currently stipulated.

Cyprus produces less goat and sheep milk than cows’ milk, meaning that the quantity of halloumi that the island can produce will decline, while leaving a large surplus of unused cows’ milk.

The row has pitched cattle farmers against sheep and goat farmers, with the latter broadly in favour of the designation because their milk will be in high demand.

But it could have a profound impact on a sector that is worth nearly €200 million a year and which employs around 12,000 people.

Britain is the biggest market, buying around 40 per cent of exports – more than three times as much as the next biggest importer, Sweden.

Business is booming across the board, with worldwide exports doubling in the past four years.

But halloumi producers have warned that half of the island’s cheese factories could close down as a result of the push for PDO.

Producers fear that if Cyprus can no longer satisfy its export markets, foreign makers of imitation halloumi will jump in to fill the gap.

The battle over halloumi has been dragging on since 2014, when Cyprus first submitted its request for official EU recognition.

The EU scheme ensures protection for food and drink that have strong links to the territory on which they are produced, from Champagne and Gorgonzola to Melton Mowbray pork pies.  

Kalimata olives, for instance, must be produced in the region of Kalamata in Greece, using only olives that come from that area.

Cypriot cheese makers say the agriculture ministry ploughed ahead with the PDO application without consulting them closely enough, with the result that the application has been gathering dust in Brussels for years.

“The decision to register the PDO would be a suicidal decision for the halloumi industry,” Nikos Papkyriakou, of the Pan Cyprian Organisation of Cattle Breeders, told the Cyprus Mail.

“And we would not even be allowed to sell our halloumi, because it does not comply with the file specs.”

Costas Kadis, the agriculture minister, was unavailable for an interview but has insisted that the government should press ahead with PDO status.

The agriculture ministry said that should happen “as soon as possible”.

The objections of cheese makers had been examined but “rejected”, the ministry said.

“The position of the ministry is that the best way for the halloumi to be protected is the approval of the PDO file by the European Commission,” a spokesman said.

Nicos Anastasiades, the president of Cyprus, has given all sides a month to try to resolve their differences and to decide whether PDO status should be pursued or withdrawn.

“We’re still in discussion. We’re waiting to see what the government’s next move is,” said Mr Petrou of the Dairy Producers Association.



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