Traditional ġbejna makers claim Malta’s attempt to get EU-wide protection for their cheese rounds has been worded to favour the island’s dairy giants and will kill off the last remaining sheepherders.  

A band of 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 was finalised last year.

However, the herders say that the diary giants behind Benna, the milk production company, seem to have got their way as the wording of the application was changed from seeking to protect “ġbejna and ġbejniet” to “ġbejna tan-nagħaġ” (sheep’s ġbejna).

They argue ġbejna can only be tan-nagħag.

The other designation would leave the door open for copycat cheeselets made from cow’s milk (ġbejna tal-baqar, made by Benna among others) to still be called ġbejna. This is something the protective status was meant to stop. 

“We cannot stand idle when we clearly know that EU policies and instruments will be used and abused in order to favour individual sectors, at the expense of others,” their objection reads. 

In the objection, submitted 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.

“The need for the PDO is to reinforce the authentic product’s strong link with Maltese heritage and tradition, not to create further confusion within the market.”

Herders have already submitted peer-reviewed literature to support their claims that the cheese rounds can only be called ġbejniet if they are made from local sheep milk.

Leaked documents following the herders’ first failed application had shed light on the David and Goliath contest between small cheese-makers and large dairy producers over the type and origin of milk used.

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

Many of the mass-produced variants available in supermarket fridges across the country today, however, are made using cow’s milk and do not follow the traditional methods of production.

The Malta Competition and Consumer Affairs Authority sided with Malta Dairy Producers, makers of Benna.

The traditional herders say the application to protect “ġbejna tan-nagħaġ” is a “loophole” to allow for the continued mass-produced copycats to take over the market. 

“As far as we know, the only entity to object to the original application, and the reason why this applicant was forced to resubmit an application, is co-owned by the state (Malta Dairy Products Ltd.), while MCCAA (which, at best, is not an independent authority) shot down the application to favour a completely different sector,” the objection reads.

The only other large-scale local company which produces cows’ milk cheese changed the name of its cheese slightly as soon as they realised that the sheep breeders were applying for the PDO. Their product is still thriving on local supermarket shelves.

What is a PDO label?

If the ġbejna was handed a label denoting a PDO, then cheese producers would 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 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.

This is the same across the EU.

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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