NZ cheese makers worry EU trade deal will restrict common names

Source: 1News

Like parmesan or gruyère on your pasta? Kiwi cheese makers are worried that will become a thing of the past if the European Union gets its way as New Zealand negotiates a free trade deal.

The free trade agreement, which New Zealand formally proposed with the EU in 2009, is back in the spotlight as the Prime Minister prepares to travel to Europe this weekend.

New Zealand Specialist Cheesemakers Association chair Catherine McNamara said, under the deal, the EU was pushing to "strip us of the right to use common description terms like feta, parmesan, and gruyère" under the union's protections of the origins of products.

She said the association was also worried that the EU was pushing for an open-ended process that could further target other names like halloumi, danbo and havarti.

McNamara said the cost would fall on Kiwi cheese makers to develop new names, replace packaging and rebuild customer recognition. She said, meanwhile, imported EU cheeses would gain monopoly rights to the names off the back of the hard work of Kiwi businesses.

“The hard graft of entrepreneurial Kiwis at farmers’ markets, food shows and in retail has prompted people to try these cheeses, learn about them and develop a taste for them.

"It’s taken years to develop the New Zealand domestic market and now the predominantly small businesses who have done this work face losing these markets."

Different types of cheeses.

She said part of the frustration was that "there is really no need for this".

"New Zealanders understand that these cheeses are made in different countries.

"It is basically just the world’s largest cheese exporter seeking to give its own producers a further leg up at our expense."

But one trade expert is optimistic about the success of rebranding New Zealand's cheeses because it had been done before with products like certain wine varieties and Chinese gooseberries.

"So, I'm sure we'll be able to do something similar in the cheese product space," Charles Finny of government relations consultancy Saunders Unsworth told Breakfast.

Finny, a former official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade who was New Zealand's lead negotiator in its FTA with China, said it could be a "great opportunity" for cheese marketers.

But, he said dairy and beef remained sticking points in negotiations. He said if the European negotiators got their way with cheese names, it would be "one of the big wins for the EU".

"You're going to have to be buying cheese that is actually from the Parma region of Italy. We'll have to come up with a new name for the style of cheese we produce in New Zealand that we have previously called parmesan."

He didn't expect the deal to be finalised while Jacinda Ardern was on her trip, but added that it would be good for the economy to get it done by the end of the year.

Once the agreement was signed, a ratification process would begin, including public consultation, select committee hearings and debate in Parliament, Finny said.

"There is a lot of scrutiny and the media is all over this one as well. I don't think too much is going to slip through on this one that hasn't been studied very carefully by lots of people."

In 2018, before the pandemic, New Zealand’s exports to the EU were worth about $6.1 billion. In 2021, New Zealand exports to the region totalled approximately $4.6 billion.

The EU is Aotearoa's fourth-largest trading partner.

Ardern will be joined by Trade Minister Damien O’Connor in Brussels next week to speak with EU leaders about the FTA.