What do cheesemakers from long-standing members of the European Union and candidate countries have in common? They all face significant challenges when it comes to producing and selling their cheeses with regard to EU regulations, in particular rules regarding hygiene and food safety. Although seen as legitimate to ensure the safety of products, it is clear that such regulations can often overlook the full picture in terms of what guarantees products that are safe for consumers. On the final day of Cheese, we heard from European producers as well as the coordinator of a European network of dairy producers that is trying to shed light on the situation and reduce bureaucracy for small-scale cheesemakers.
When it comes the EU hygiene regulations, Member States are given the possibility to make some changes. In general this requires national measures/legislation to be introduced. The underlying principle regarding such modifications is that “they cannot affect the achievement of the objectives of the Hygiene Package.” The three ways in which hygiene rules can be amended are:
- Exclusions – an activity can be excluded from the scope of a regulation e.g. retail
- Exemptions – a specific part of the regulation need not be applied
- Adaptation – traditional methods of production may be accommodated, in particular relevant infrastructural requirements or geographical constraints
Although these flexibility measures could be very useful for small-scale farmers, they first need to be able to understand how they work and/or push for the national laws that would help them.
Speaking about the situation in Spain, Remedios Carrasco coordinator of Que Red (Red Española de Queserias de Campo y Artesanas) outlined the confusion surrounding what is permitted, explaining, “Eighty percent of producers in Spain believe hand milking is forbidden, although this is not written anywhere.” She also explained that although some traditional cheeses in Spain have now been granted exemptions, including the use of wooden shelves for ripening and the use of cotton cloths to mold curds, these mainly apply to cheeses with PDO status, with many producers still left in the dark.
She went on to provide a number of case studies regarding the issue of food contamination. For example, it seems a dairy should haves two doors (it is not permitted to have a single access for workers and raw materials etc.) and that specific vehicles are mandatory for milk and for cheese. However, this is often not possible for small dairies, with one to three people producing a few liters of milk. “In reality, what is important is that considerations are made to avoid contamination,” she told the audience.
Explaining the situation in Macedonia, Elena Karovska from Slow Food Bitola suggested the situation is cloudier still in candidate countries. She explained that although Macedonia is beginning to learn from other European countries, listing cheeses as well as traditional materials and methods, small-scale farming is still overlooked. Seventy-five percent of all farms in the country are small farms, and only 34% of milk is sold (the rest stays on the farm). In addition to this, 50% of all milk is processed in just three dairies. This makes it very difficult for farmers to find their place in the market, let alone get to grips with regulations applied to the dairy industry at large.
All producers suggested that what is needed is a practical interpretation of what each one means. Luckily work is currently underway to make this possible. As part of the Erasmus Plus project, Slow Food Italy is collaborating with Spain, Turkey and Macedonia in order to promote artisanal cheeses and ensure that the guardians of tradition can continue to produce cheeses that are safe and economically sustainable for consumers, without compromising their artisanal nature. Since 2013, FACE (Farmhouse and Artisan Cheese & Dairy Producers European Network) has been working to represent and defend the interests of farmhouse and artisan cheesemakers. Active in 13 countries and working with 24 producer organizations, they aim to increase lobbying at the EU level and increase exchanges between members on issues such as hygiene and technology.
Representing the network, Yolande Moulem explained that a key part of this work is the development of a European Guide for Good Practice, designed to help producers comply with the regulations in place. Written by producers and technicians from different European countries, the aim is to design a document that can be used by every European country. In March 2016, it will be presented to the European Commission for validation, and hopefully publishing it at the end of that year. If accepted, those producers that follow the guide, and use practices in accordance with it, will no longer be subjected to such extensive scrutiny.
Speaking of her experiences, Emanuela Ceruti from the Slow Food Macagn Presidium, suggested that as well as producers increasing their understanding of rules and regulations, consumers also needed to improve their understanding regarding the safety of food. She said that in the past, people knew why certain materials were used, giving the example of copper pots that are easier to clean, but that today, the distance between people and the food on their plates is increasing. “Many people who buy cheese have lost their connection to it,” she said, adding that more information and more exchanges between producers and consumers is key to addressing this problem.
The conference ended with a tasting of cheeses from the different countries represented on the panel. All delicious, we hope the producers are able to continue their work in the future.
Photo: © Pierre Soissons