Beef from Brazil? Australia shouldn’t accept these European food protections, expert says

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Australia should not concede to the European Union’s pressure to protect dozens of food and wine names as Europe’s fiercely protected regional delicacies are made from ingredients that can come from as far away as Brazil, industry and experts say.

As the 15th and final round of major negotiations over the Australia-EU trade deal takes place in Brussels this week, Australian producers are fighting a last-ditch battle to use names such as prosecco and parmesan for their own products.

Mauro Montalto from Floridia Cheese is the third generation of his family to produce traditional Italian cheeses including Parmesan in Melbourne.Credit: Joe Armao

Naming protections for European food and drinks – so-called geographic indicators – are the final sticking point of the trade deal and producers are pushing the government to have some food and wine names, like feta, to be recognised as generics.

Honorary Associate Professor Hazel Moir, from the ANU’s Centre for European Studies, said protected European products do not always come from the regions that are on the label, and she believes a significant number of the registered names are misleading.

“Parma ham pigs do not have to grow up in Parma. They can grow up anywhere in Central or North Italy,” she said.

“The worst example for [geographic indicator protection] is a lovely product called Bresaola della Valentina, where the final processing is done in the alpine region of northern Italy. The meat comes from Brazil.”

Moir said Australia should require the European Union to demonstrate the products they want protected are actually made from ingredients that come from the region on the label.

“If it doesn’t come from the region that is on the label, we should refuse to register it,” she said.

Producers should also be allowed to appeal requests for geographic indicator protection, Moir says, and the government should also push for recognition of some names as generic product names, which would allow local producers to continue making products including parmesan and feta.

Moir said while the previous wine agreement, which restricted the use of names including champagne, was a worthwhile trade-off because the costs of rebranding were balanced by improved access for Australian producers, the same cannot be said for cheese products.

“Less than 1 per cent of European cheese imports [come] from Australia,” she said. “The Europeans are not buying Australian cheese.”

Mauro Montalto from Floridia Cheese is the third generation to produce traditional Italian cheeses including, Parmesan, after his grandfather emigrated from Italy to Melbourne in the 1950s.

Today, 40 per cent of the cheese Monalto makes is hard rind varieties including parmesan. He said demand for traditional parmesan is strong, and any restriction on the name would harm the family business.

Australian Dairy Products Federation president John Williams said if local cheese makers were forced to drop names such as feta and parmesan it would mean the “complete obliteration of businesses”.

Independent research conducted for the federation found it would represent a loss of about $220 million in revenue from gross regional production, and up to 1000 jobs from the industry.

“The market for European and Mediterranean style cheeses have been built off the back of these businesses,” Williams said.

He said many immigrants moved to Australia from Europe and established businesses, passed on through generations, making quality products and using those names.

Montalto’s grandfather learnt how to make cheese as a shepherd in his Sicilian hometown. After a few years making cheese for family on his weekends, he raised enough money to purchase a factory in northern Melbourne.

“Parmesan, in Italy, is made in a lot of regions,” Montalto said. “The way we make our cheese today is still time-honoured to what my grandfather taught my father, and my father has taught us: we haven’t really deviated.”

Both Australia and the European Union hope a trade deal can be signed by the middle of the year, although Trade Minister Don Farrell conceded there was a tough job ahead to get the deal done.

“But our negotiators are making good progress and we expect to close a number of gaps in positions this week in Brussels,” he said.

“We won’t sign a trade agreement with the EU unless the overall deal is in our interests, including providing significant market access improvements for Aussie farmers and producers.”

Opposition trade spokesman Kevin Hogan said it would be really difficult for producers to replace those brand names.

“We know that free trade agreements are about who blinks first,” he said. “And I’d encourage [the government] to go hard.”

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