CYPRUS: Effort to protect famous export halloumi is grilled and grated

10 mins read

Procedures governing the future of halloumi as a Cypriot product, are languishing in the EU corridors giving way to concerns that Cyprus may lose its rightful ownership of its famous traditional squeaky cheese.

According to the Ministries of Agriculture and Commerce, key cases regarding Halloumi, as well as the country’s protected designation of origin (PDO) application for Halloumi to be recognized as a product specific to Cyprus, are currently stuck due to reasons that are beyond their comprehension.

“The accreditation of Halloumi as a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) product has been in the European Committee’s drawers since 28 July 2015 when it was submitted,” said an Agriculture Ministry source.

“While the European Committee is still out on the matter of examining Cyprus objections to a request from a UK-based Cypriot-owned company, to cancel the Halloumi trademark awarded to the Cyprus Republic,” the source added.

The request for the cancellation of the European Union Collective trademark was filled by John and Pascalis Ltd, following the company’s court success in having Cyprus Halloumi trademark annulled in the UK.

John and Pascalis are currently the biggest importers of the white cheese to the UK, absorbing 40% of halloumi exports that generate around EUR 80 mln a year.

Total income generated from Halloumi exports reached EUR 197 mln in 2018, while the target set is EUR 300 mln by 2023.

Cyprus lost its halloumi trademark in the UK last November on technical grounds, as due to a blunder by the government, Nicosia was late in making its case in the UK courts.

In effect, the competent authority, the Commerce Ministry had failed to present the country’s case in a timely manner with UK courts having no other option than annulling the trademark.

Following the loss of the trademark in Cyprus’ biggest halloumi market and the request for cancellation of the European trademark, the Ministry of Commerce has presented the country’s case for retaining the EU halloumi trademark.

A Ministry of Commerce source said the files submitted are currently under examination by Brussels, with the ministry not able to take any further steps until procedures are complete.

“The Ministry is also focusing on fencing off some 70 plus requests to cancel our halloumi trademarks in a number of countries around the world,” said the source.

“Following the loss of the trademark in Britain and the rejection of the appeal by the Legal Service, the EU trademark is now the only legal shield the traditional product of Cyprus has left.”

With regards to Nicosia’s request to have halloumi registered as a PDO, a source from the Ministry of Agriculture said that they have been asking EU officials to intervene to unblock the PDO procedure which has been stuck for almost four years, without any success.

Letter to Juncker

Even President Nicos Anastasiades sent a letter to the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, asking him to intervene to speed up procedures.

The source said that further delays are on the cards as they do not expect the current Agricultural Committee of the outgoing European Commission to take any political decisions.

“Our experience is that the EU commission refrains from taking political decisions that may commit their successors,” said the source.

The European Commission’s term ends on 31 October, five months after the European Parliament elections on 26 May.

“We hope to have more understanding from the next Commission,” said the official source.

The main problem is the connection of halloumi’s file with the Cyprus problem and disagreements between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots on how halloumi products will be checked and exported.

Despite the initial consensus achieved between the two sides in 2015, the matter has got stuck as there was no agreement on trade involving products produced by livestock.

A few days prior to the publication of Cyprus’ halloumi file in the European Union's Journal, on July 16, 2015, President Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci had reached an understanding which led Juncker’s office to issue a statement saying there was a “consensus”.

In particular, the consensus provided that "the European Commission will adopt a proposal to amend the Green Line Regulation on the same day as the official publication of the official application for the registration of Halloumi / Hellim as a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) of Regulation No. 1151/2012".

Asked why an amendment to the Green Line regulation was not adopted, the source said that this had to do with disagreements between the two sides.

The Ministries of Agriculture and Commerce will set up a body with the Nicosia’s legal services and the Foreign Affairs Ministry to decide on further steps to be taken in order to protect Cyprus halloumi rights. 

The European Commission in communication with the Financial Mirror said that the Halloumi PDO file is under evaluation, taking into consideration the understanding between the leaders of the two communities as expressed during a visit of the EC President Jean-Claud Juncker on 16 July 2015.

An EU Commission representative in Nicosia told the Financial Mirror that they had nothing more to add. 

Disagreements over PDO file

Meanwhile, disagreements between stakeholders over the description of the squeaky cheese included in the PDO file still persist. Dairy producers fear that if the file is approved by the European Commission then producers will lose millions overnight.

The sticking point of the PDO file is that currently, producers make halloumi with a ratio of 80%-20% of cow’s to goat or sheep’s milk, while the description of the file says that halloumi should be produced with a minimum of 51% goat or sheep’s milk as of 2024.

Talking to the Financial Mirror Michalis Petrou, CEO of Alambra Dairy Industry, said that the government should consider renegotiating with dairy producers the description of halloumi in the PDO file.

“With the approval of the PDO file, products such as Chilli flavoured Halloumi, Halloumi blocks weighing over 300g and other by-products will not be eligible to be labelled as traditional Halloumi. These products are the biggest part of our exports,” said Petrou.

The Dairy Producers Association would also like to see the PDO file altered to include these products. “We want to see the file amended in such a way that the industry will not lose out. The Halloumi industry is supporting thousands of families active in agriculture, farming and other related industries like packaging.  

If the PDO file is approved as is, these families will be severely impacted as the price of halloumi will skyrocket,” said the Association’s general secretary Andreas Andreou.

He said goat and sheep milk is more expensive as it is rarer and a rise in the price of Cypriot halloumi will give way to other similar cheese products to push halloumi aside.

“Halloumi producers in the areas controlled by the Republic have lost a significant portion of the Arab countries’ markets to fellow Turkish Cypriot producers who are selling at lower prices,” said Andreou.  

“This shows how sensitive halloumi’s price is. Imagine what will happen if we have to comply with a directive saying that halloumi should be made with more than 50% goat or sheep milk. Halloumi could end up on the same shelf with other expensive cheeses such as Rockford cheese which need a long time to mature in contrast to halloumi,” he added.

Andreou called on the government to assign an independent body which will evaluate the effects of the halloumi PDO file being approved as is and then reevaluate whether the file needs to be amended.