Kiwi cheese-makers will be wondering which advice they should take from chef Simon Gault.
This week he was saying they should stop trying to imitate brie and gouda and focus on producing uniquely New Zealand styles.
His advice was given to people watching a webinar arranged by the European Union Delegation to New Zealand, an outfit committed to promoting the EU’s increasing use of geographical indications to protect European products.
In June last year, however, Gault was singing the praises of NZ French-style cheeses.
In particular, he was enthusing about a French-style camembert made in the Nelson region.
So you don’t have to go to France to buy a cheese, he advised.
“ Bastille day is coming up – let’s buy NZ French cheese”
Fair to say, there may be two chefs named Simon Gault, and it may well be a different fellow who now is reported to have said in an impassioned online presentation that our cheesemakers shouldn’t feel threatened by the European Union’s move to restrict the use of regional produce names.
Instead, they should focus on developing styles unique to New Zealand and telling their own cheese story.
The EU is notorious – of course – for using geographical indications (or GIs) to protect European products in so-called free trade agreements.
It has compiled a list of hundreds of products it wants to protect with GIs as part of free trade agreements with New Zealand, Australia and other countries.
Claims have been made on more than a dozen cheeses.
According to Stuff, Gault said this shouldn’t worry those in the New Zealand cheese industry, which was still young enough to change, grow and cement itself on the world stage.
New Zealand’s best cheeses were those which weren’t trying to be anything else, he said.
“If you look for a halloumi in the supermarket, there will be multiple. They’re all different, and they’re rendering the name halloumi meaningless,” he told those watching the webinar, arranged by the European Union Delegation to New Zealand.
“No wonder the Italians don’t want us to call our cheese Parmigiano Reggiano, because there’s nothing like it here. It’s an embarrassment for all concerned.
“We don’t see the Italians trying to make Marlborough sauvignon blanc. I mean, come on.”
Gault identified the Lindis Pass range from Oamaru-based Whitestone Cheese and Fonterra’s Kāpiti Kikorangi Blue as examples of New Zealand cheeses that surpassed foreign varieties and which consumers were willing to pay a premium for.
“Imported cheese is heavily subsidised offshore, to the point where you can airfreight it halfway around the world and it will still be $10 a kilo cheaper [than local cheese].
“In New Zealand, we want New Zealand. If you pick up a French brie, you know it’s going to be good but we need to stand on our own.
“A Kikorangi Blue could cost significantly more than gorgonzola and people will buy it.”
Gault described Kikorangi Blue as “geographically authentic” and a cheese which blue lovers worldwide could aspire to taste.
New Zealand cheesemakers had the talent to produce many more of its calibre, he said.
“Now is the time to change, while our industry is so young. We need to grow and set New Zealand cheese alight.”
The EU will be grateful for his contribution to a dispute which rankles New Zealand dairy exporters.
The EU has used the negotiation of a free trade agreement with New Zealand to try to protect 2,200 geographical indication terms with provision for additional terms to be protected in the future.
The threat to our cheese exports extends far beyond sales to European customers.
Late last year the EU signed an agreement with China.
New Zealand dairy companies at that time drew attention to the continuing expansion of the EU’s geographic indication agenda and how it would prevent dairy producers from exporting feta and other commonly produced cheeses to the high value Chinese market.
Dairy Companies Association of NZ data showed New Zealand’s dairy exports to China were valued at over $5bn in 2018, with cheese exports across all products valued at over $340m.
“The EU-China Agreement is part of a rapidly growing number of trade agreements the EU has negotiated with third countries such as Japan, Mexico, Vietnam, and Singapore. Through these agreements the EU is seeking to monopolise a wide range of cheese terms that are in common use globally and produced in significant quantities outside of the EU” says DCANZ executive director Kimberly Crewther.
“Opportunities for cheeses that New Zealand has produced for decades and never called any other name, like parmesan, feta and gruyere, are gradually being eroded.”
DCANZ was understandably concerned about where the push to protect generic cheese names would end.
In 2017, the EU registered ‘Danbo’ as a protected term, despite previous acknowledgement by the Danish dairy industry that Danbo is a generic cheese name and the significant global production outside of Europe, including in New Zealand.
The EU has also registered ‘Havarti’ as a protected term for sole use by Denmark in the EU, although a majority of the global production is outside Denmark and the EU implicitly recognises the term as generic through the prior Codex standard setting process and to trade rules under the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
“The registration of Danbo and Havarti as protected GIs raises serious questions about the integrity of the EU’s GI registration process and framework” says Crewther.
DCANZ accepts the EU’s GI protections for cheese names that are genuinely unique to a particular geography.
But protecting internationally recognised, and commonly used, terms demonstrated that the flawed EU GI system was too often used for the EU’s self-interest and economic gain, and not for legitimate intellectual property protection, Crewther contended.
“If Havarti meets the definition of a GI, then there are no cheese names that wouldn’t. There is no certainty around where this attempt to clawback commonly trade cheese names will end”.
But GIs are not the only element of the EUs protectionist trade agenda that upsets this country’s dairy industry. Details of a market access offer, reported by European media in June, exposed the magnitude of the agricultural protectionism the EU hopes to preserve.
Under the terms of the offer to NZ in negotiations for a new trade agreement, the EU would accept just over three grams of New Zealand cheese for each of its citizens, subject to volume restrictions and a tariff which our trade minister, David Parker, said was prohibitively high.
In comparison, the EU had exported – tariff free – almost a kilogram of its cheese for every New Zealander to New Zealand.
DCANZ chairman Malcolm Bailey at that time said the EU offer’s “miniscule” quota volumes and high tariffs could never credibly form part of a free trade agreement between the two economies.
Bailey said the reported starting cheese quota of 1500 tonnes was just 0.02 per cent of the EU’s cheese market of almost nine million tonnes.
The butter offer of 600 tonnes was similarly low at just 0.03 per cent of the domestic market, and each tonne would attract a tariff of €586 per tonne, significantly constraining its usability.
Bailey huffed that this fell short of even paying lip-service to free trade and was unashamed protectionism from the world’s largest dairy exporter.
Will the EU let more of our cheeses into its market if we give them names which camouflage their generic styles and emphasise their Kiwi origins?
Not bloody likely.