Australian cheesemakers are mobilising against a proposed European crackdown on the naming of hundreds of products – including feta, mozzarella and gorgonzola – warning not only of job losses, but of a degradation of Australia’s rich multicultural history.
As part of negotiations between Australia and the European Union over a new free trade agreement, the EU has put forward a list of geographic indicators that it believes Australian producers should not be able to use.
Under the proposed changes, the EU would ban Australia using the names of 236 beverages and 172 foods, including 56 cheeses, and require rebranding and repackaging to ensure products were not mistaken for their European equivalents.
The ruling would capture many Australian producers with European ancestry who have continued the food tradition and methods of their forebears.
Mauru Montalto, who is Australian born, says he still considers himself an Italian cheesemaker, carrying on the traditions of his grandfather who migrated to Australia in the 1950s.
“I do acknowledge I am Australian born, but I am certainly proud of my Italian heritage, and if someone questioned me and said you are not an Italian cheesemaker, I would ask, well, what am I then?
“Because it is my identity, I know it inside out, back to front, it is something I have done almost all life.”
Montalto said he feared that the EU’s ruling could force him to rebrand his mozzarella and parmesan cheeses, estimating the cost could run into the “hundreds of thousands” of dollars and threaten some of his 90-strong workforce.
“For us it would like restarting the business all over again.”
But he said he also worried about losing the ability for producers who had come to Australia in a wave of post-war migration to promote their Italian identity.
“That is one of the questions we have had with the EU: basically, this is who we are, this is what we do, this is our life. If we lose this what have we worked for? What have we brought to this country? Not just us, but all of the Italians who I think are very proud people.”
Melbourne’s North Food Group, which represents more than 400 food businesses in Victoria, said the changes would hit the industrial suburbs in Melbourne’s north hard, which had turned to food manufacturing in the wake of the car industry’s closure in 2016.
Its executive director, Chris James, said the sector was one of the “bright spots” in the region as demand had grown for more sophisticated foods.
Of the 400 food businesses his group represents, James estimates almost all would be family owned, with about half run by families who were descended from the wave of post-war migration from Europe.
“We would be concerned if a key component of the food manufacturing sector was adversely affected in the way it was able to market its products, and we do have a particular strength in cheese and smallgoods manufacturing in Melbourne’s north, particularly because of the post-war Mediterranean migration to the region, where people brought recipes from their own regions of Italy and Greece in particular.
“Now they face the prospect of being told that they can’t use the names of the brands that they gave grown up with, which is irksome and potentially very costly to those companies.”
James said that many small family-owned producers would not be able to manage the subsequent loss of revenue and rebranding costs if the EU got its way, potentially forcing businesses to close and job losses.
But he also said it would damage the cultural fabric of the city.
“I think it would chip away at that cultural fabric, and food is a very important part of Mediterranean culture and it has been a key component of the Mediterranean culture that has been brought to and nurtured in Melbourne’s north.”
The trade minister, Simon Birmingham, has said the government will drive a “hard bargain” on behalf of producers, but wants to clinch the deal to give Australian companies better access to Europe’s 500 million consumers.