Halloumi PDO protection in jeopardy again

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EU court backs Bulgarian and Swedish rivals in Halloumi trade war

Cyprus has lost its first halloumi battles in European courts since the island’s traditional cheese was granted the status of a Product of Designated Origin (PDO), as European Courts ruled in favour of Bulgarian and Swedish imitators.

Shielded behind the newly acquired PDO status, Cyprus’ traditional cheese makers believed that they could now make the most from the ever-growing market, as authorities would be able to fend off imitators to the crown.

On Wednesday, however, an EU court ruled for a second time that there is no possibility of consumers confusing Cyprus’ traditional cheese halloumi with Bulgarian imitator BBQloumi and Swedish Grilloumi, essentially dismissing the government’s challenge.

The European Court of Justice General Court ruled there is “no likelihood of confusion between the collective mark HALLOUMI and the sign ‘BBQLOUMI’ which serves to designate the products of a Bulgarian company”.

The “Foundation for the Protection of the Traditional Cheese of Cyprus named Halloumi” owns an EU collective trademark for the Cypriot white cheese.

It was set up in 2013 by the Republic of Cyprus and the Cyprus Milk Industry Organisation to fend off imitators in international markets.

The foundation first took the case of BBQloumi and Griloumi to court in 2021, helped by the Cyprus legal services, over EU trademark infringements by the Bulgarian company but it lost the legal battle.

The authority later came back with appeals in early 2022, this time with the PDO status in its arsenal. However, the European court overruled Cyprus’ objections on Wednesday.

Having thrown immense weight on the two cases, government officials then thought that these imitators could pave the way to more imitators.

A Commerce Ministry source confirmed to the Financial Mirror that the legal services along with the foundation for the protection of halloumi, are trying to fend off some 80 cases involving imitations.

Not losing their head

Despite earlier panic among cheese producers in Cyprus, the island’s dairy producers are keeping their cool over the latest developments, appearing to be accepting the new rules of the game.

In comments to the Financial Mirror, the head of the Cyprus Dairy Producers Association, Marios Constantinou, argued that Cyprus should no longer be dedicating resources to challenging such imitators.

Asked over the possibility of imitators displacing halloumi, or taking a large portion of the market pie, Constantinou said that the island’s cheese makers should not be overly worried.

“We have a distinct product, protected by the PDO file and its strict criteria, including the clause that the cheese must be made in Cyprus with Cypriot milk,” said Constantinou.

“If someone wants to use part of the name, as the Bulgarians and Swedish are doing with the ending -loumi, there’s not much we can do. What we should be focusing is on protecting halloumi, with qualities that cannot be confused with other cheeses,” he added.

The head of the Cyprus Dairy Producers continued to argue that what stakeholders should be doing, is pulling together to make sure that hlloumi remains a strong brand in international markets.

“To do this, there are a few pending issues concerning the description of Halloumi in the PDO file, which may pose difficulties down the road,” said Constantinou.

Constantinou was addressing the elephant in the room, which is the thorny issue of sheep or goat milk to cow milk ratio used to make the squeaky cheese.

A recent deal with the government, foresees that for an initial transitional period up to 2024, products may be labelled “halloumi” if they contain at least 10% goat and sheep milk during the ‘low’ season and 25% during the high season.

Based on the deal, the ratio is to be increased by 5% on top of 25% every year until the 50% level is reached in 2029.

However, dairy producers are not satisfied with the deal, claiming that there is not enough sheep and goat milk to cover demand in international markets.

Not all dairy producers in agreement

A food industry observer with experience in legal proceedings over halloumi feels the cheese is cornered with record exports put at risk.

“The collective worldmark ‘halloumi’ was registered on 14 July 2000 and remains across the EU and UK. It is supposed to protect the product against any imitators in the union. Our line of defence was to become stronger with the approval of the PDO file in 2020,” said the source.

Halloumi cheese is considered ‘white gold’ worth EUR 1.34 bln in exports from 2017-2021, with revenue expected to grow exponentially in the coming years.

According to the Ministry of Commerce, Cyprus dairy producers in the first nine months of 2022 exported 32,000 tonnes of halloumi worth EUR 227 mln.

An increase of 23% from 2020 — the best year for halloumi exports.

The traditional cheese is a major export, along with citrus fruits, cement, potatoes, and pharmaceuticals, with a 16.8% share.

“This is all at stake. Trademarks can no longer protect halloumi. As our exports grow, and the profit pie gets bigger and bigger, the more this will attract imitators who will want to take a chunk of it for themselves,” said the industry source.

“Cyprus losing the BBQloumi and Grilloumi cases will set a precedent for dairy producers putting forward their version of halloumi dubbing it ‘white’, ‘barbeque’ or ‘grill’, cheese.”