Efforts to have Malta’s beloved ġbejna cheeselets recognised as a protected product across Europe have been shot down by the market regulator.
The Malta Competition and Consumer Affairs Authority (MCCAA) confirmed that it had received an extensive application from sheep herders to have the traditional ġbejna given an EU quality food label three years ago.
However, despite an association of sheep herders submitting peer-reviewed literature to support their cause to protect their traditional product, the regulator said it had decided that “the term ġbejna has become generic in Malta” and therefore could not be protected.
Replying to questions sent last week, the authority said that following public consultation, it had decided that the word ġbejna had come to be used across the board to refer to cheeselets and not specifically those made using traditional ġbejna techniques.
If the ġbejna was handed a label denoting a protected designation of origin (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.
Large-scale producer had objected to protection
Sources confirmed that objections were raised by at least one of Malta’s large-scale producers of ‘ġbejna’ that would no longer be able to use the term if the quality label were awarded to the cheese.
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.
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.
Malta is the only EU country with no foods listed on the quality food labelling charter. Only a handful of local wines have so far qualified for similar EU labels despite the scheme being in place since the early 1990s.
The main bone of contention surrounding the application, a source privy to the application process said, was the type of milk used to produce the small local cheeselets.
According to the application submitted by sheep herders, a ġbejna should only be made using sheep’s milk. However, many of the mass-produced variants available in supermarket fridges across Malta today are made using cow’s milk.
Had the herders’ application been successful then these variants of the cheese would no longer be able to call themselves a ġbejna. The production method would have to follow specific methods too.
This is the same across the EU. To qualify as roquefort, for instance, the cheese must be made from the milk of a certain 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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