Dairy production giants Benna fought against traditional ġbejna makers’ efforts to have their beloved cheeselets protected across the EU, it is being claimed in court.

The Xirka Produtturi Nagħaġ u Mogħoż, an association of sheep and goat herders, claim that their efforts to have the delicacy recognised were met with objections from the island’s largest dairy producer.

The documents, backed up by official minutes of consultation meetings seen by Times of Malta, suggest a David and Goliath contest over the type and origin of milk used.

Had the traditional sheep herders won, the small rounds of cheese would only be called ġbejna if they were made of milk from Maltese sheep. 

Many of the mass-produced variants available in supermarket fridges across the country today are made using cow’s milk.

In a comment to Times of Malta, however, a spokesman for Malta Dairy Products, producers of the Benna brand, insisted that the ġbejna has historically been produced in Malta from different milk varieties.

“We can confirm that MDP went through a detailed and rigorous process of verification on this matter to prove and authenticate that the ġbejna has historically been produced in Malta from different milk varieties rather than only from sheep’s milk. MDP is in fact in favour of protection and the award of EU quality food labels (PDO) for the local ġbejna whether it’s made from sheep’s, goats’ or cows’ milk,” the spokesperson said.

Earlier this month, Times of Malta reported how efforts to have ġbejna cheeselets given the EU status of Protected Designation of Origin were shot down by the market regulator

In the court protest filed last year, the herders argue that the main reason their application to protect the ġbejna was turned down was because it had been opposed by Malta Dairy Products Limited, the company behind Benna milk products.  

The ġbejna has historically been produced in Malta from different milk varieties

The Malta Competition and Consumer Affairs Authority (MCCAA) confirmed it rejected the herders’ application, saying that, following consultation with stakeholders, it had decided “the term ġbejna has become generic in Malta”. 

Why does EU food protection matter?

Malta is the only EU member state without a single food awarded any form of protective status under the food quality label programme.

If the ġbejna was handed a label denoting a protected designation of origin (PDO), cheese producers across Europe would only be able to use the term ġbejna for their produce if they followed a strictly traditional recipe and herding guide as approved by European Union and Maltese experts. 

The PDO food label is used across Europe to protect unique regional foods from mass-marketed and mass-produced copycats. It is meant to support local producers and weed out misleading labelling while enforcing quality production.

Had the herders’ application been successful, the mass-produced versions of the cheese would no longer be able to label their product ġbejna and would likely have had to use a different name, such as ġobna, meaning cheeselet.

The unique characteristics that make up the traditional rounds of sheep’s milk cheese have already been studied and docu-mented in a five-year project between the University of Malta, the University of Catania and a Sicilian dairy research centre.

Ġbejniet (the plural of ġbejna) the project established, are made out of 100 per cent sheep’s milk, reared in local flocks on a diet of Maltese vegetation. The cheese has particular nutritional values and can be fresh or dried – but using specific techniques.

However, according to the official minutes of the consultation meetings held by the MCCAA, major dairy producers argued that the herders should change their application and instead seek to protect the term ‘ġbejna tan-nagħaġ’ (sheep’s cheeselet).

This, they argued, would allow the large dairy producers to continue calling their cows’ milk variants ġbejniet. Otherwise, the meeting heard, ġbejniet could soon become a thing of the past.

In their judicial protest, the herders are arguing that granting the quality label would not mean the end of cows’ milk cheeselets that are produced by makers such as Benna.

The move, they submitted, would have simply meant that these would no longer be able to call their cheese rounds ġbejniet.

The MCCAA, the protest reads, did not provide adequate technical reasons for the rejection of their application and, instead,  had only listed a chronology of their consultation process and deliberation. 

The herders also argue that the state has an obligation to help protect local and traditional food culture. Instead, it was making life more difficult for those trying to keep local gastronomic traditions alive.

A judicial protest is a way of registering a dispute with the authorities and is often used as a precursor to legal action. 

The herders warned the authority, as well as the Agriculture Ministry, that it planned on taking further legal action to defend its right to fair process. 

In a response to the herders’ judicial protest, the Malta Competition and Consumer Affairs Authority insisted that it had followed procedures approved by the EU when deciding on whether to apply for protective status for the cheese. 

It said it was obliged to hear objections from interested parties and noted it had tried to find a middle ground that would work for all involved.

MDP Ltd did not reply to the judicial protest that was filed by the herders.

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