Malta has decided to apply for EU protective status for the traditional ġbejna, but local producers and sheep herders remain split over whether this will save the beloved cheese rounds or sign their death warrant.  

Herders and cheesemakers have for years been trying to have the term ‘ġbejna’ protected, as Malta remains the last EU state without a single product on the list of protected food heritage.

An application for a PDO (protected designation of origin) quality label has now been approved by Malta’s consumer rights watchdog and is set to be sent off to Brussels after months of internal deliberations, legal threats, and the alleged muscling in of big business.  

The Malta Competition and Consumer Affairs Authority on Thursday informed sheep herders that it had finalised the process that will be sent to the European Commission.  

Member states will now decide whether or not they agree with recognising the cheese as a form of national heritage that deserves to be protected.  

An initial application had been finalised last year and all was set to have it sent over to Brussels for approval. 

However, sources in the sheep herding community say that the dairy giants behind Benna, the milk production company, had muscled in on the process and got their way as the wording of the application was changed in the eleventh hour. 

What's in a name?

Rather than seeking to protect “ġbejna and ġbejniet” the application now covers the term “ġbejna tan-nagħaġ” (sheep’s ġbejna).

The concerned herders say that protecting the term ġbejna – as their original application had intended – would have ensured that the only cheese eligible to use that term would be made using traditional methods – most importantly milk from local sheep. 

Any other cheese that does not follow traditional production methods would therefore not be called ġbejniet

Herders have warned that through the wording of the current application it will only be ġbejna tan-nagħaġ that will be protected as a traditional form of cheese. 

This means copycat cheese made using cows milk (ġbejna tal-baqar, made by Benna among others), additives, modern drying and curing methods, and even powdered milk, will be able to use the term ‘ġbejna’.  

In an objection, submitted in May by NGO Maya Foundation on the herders’ behalf, the small-time cheesemakers say that “at face value the current submission might seem that it is protecting the product, but in the long term it will actually harm it”.

Their objection, however, seems to have been ignored as the MCCAA forged ahead with the proposal to protect ‘ġbejna tan-nagħaġ’. 

Meanwhile, Xirka Produtturi Nagħaġ u Mogħoż, another association of sheep and goat herders, say the final wording of the application is a compromise that will allow the cheese to start being recognised on the international stage.  

Leaked documents following the herders’ first failed application had shed light on the contest between small cheesemakers and large dairy producer Benna over the type and origin of milk used.

The herders had even threatened legal action at the time, filing a judicial protest in court.  

What is a PDO label?

If the ġbejna was handed a label denoting a PDO, cheese producers would then only be able to use this term for their produce if they followed a strictly traditional recipe and herding guide as approved by the EU. 

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.

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

Cheeses such as Parmigiano Reggiano must come from particular region and been created through a particular process. Photo: Shutterstock.comCheeses such as Parmigiano Reggiano must come from particular region and been created through a particular process. Photo:

Cheeses such as Gorgonzola, Parmigiano Reggiano, feta or Camembert can only be labelled as such if they come from a designated region and meet the production methods agreed upon between producers, their local government and Brussels during the application process for a PDO label.

To qualify as Roquefort, for instance, the cheese must be made from the milk of a particular breed of sheep and matured in the natural caves near the town of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, in the Aveyron region of France, and colonised by a specific type of fungus that only grows there.

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

Ġbejniet, the project established, are made out of 100 per cent sheep’s milk, reared in local flocks. The cheese has particular nutritional values and can be fresh or dried but using specific techniques.

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