Feta: The Great Cheese Debate

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“What’s in a name?” This is the question journalist Philip Blenkinsop posed in an article he wrote for Reuters about the feta cheese dispute. The answer is, quite a lot! This is also why the United States and its closest ally have found themselves in a heated battle in their trade talks. In fact, the EU and the United States have reached a bit of a stalemate.  The main point of dissent comes from G.I.’s (geographical origins) and food names.  At the center of this dispute is feta, the simple Greek cheese that has sparked “the great cheese debate.”

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The EU claims that geographical origins and protected designations of origin (also known as P.D.O’s) have a lot to do with food names. As a chef, I agree. For one, it provides consumers with a way to understand exactly what they’re getting when they make a purchase. It also helps protect consumers and manufacturers against imitation and misuse. This practice is nothing new; just think of the term champagne versus sparkling wine. Only sparkling wines from a specific region in France can be labeled as “champagne.” Similar wines from outside this region must be labeled simply as “sparkling wine.” This really isn’t any different than a tech company protecting their intellectual property. But in the world of food, the intellectual property lines can be hazy, especially when you’re dealing with products that have been produced for thousands of years in various regions. The EU has a list of hundreds of food and drink products that have P.D.O. status. Among the products on the list are champagne, parmesan, Parma ham, and feta cheese. The argument by the EU is that protected designations of origin were secured for these products to help protect locally grown and crafted products. They are arguing that the US is not enforcing the rules designed to protect products with geographical origins. As a result, consumers are often misled, purchasing knock-off products when the name is being fraudulently used. The United States is arguing that they generally recognize region-specific terms, such as champagne or “Gouda Holland.” But they say that the EU has gone too far by including products that are not region specific, such as parmesan or feta, which can be made in several regions within the country. But no matter which side you agree with, the truth is, there are billions of dollars at stake annually for both sides. No one understands this more than debt-ridden Greece.

In 2005, after 16 years of heated debate between Greece and other member countries, both the EU and Europe’s highest court, awarded exclusivity of the name feta to Greece. Feta is a point of national pride for the country. It’s also a huge source of income. Thanks to cheese imports, sales of Greek feta rose to 260 million euros in 2014. Greece produces 100,000 tons of feta each year. Feta (which means slice in Greek) has been produced in the country for 6,000 years. The cheese is inherently connected to Greece. In fact, part of what gives feta cheese its unique flavor is the microflora and plants consumed by the animals in the mountains of Greece. The animal’s diet affects the flavor of the milk, and ultimately the flavor of the cheese. But it’s not just the microflora of the region that makes Greek feta so unique. There are other specifications, dating back thousands of years, and adhered to only in Greek feta production. To begin with, feta cheese should be made from either sheep’s milk, or a blend of sheep and goat’s milk (with a maximum of 30% goat’s milk allowed). Feta cheese is never made from cow’s milk. Making feta with cow’s milk won’t give it the same flavor. It will also cause the cheese to become dry and crumble. For these reasons, true feta is never made with cow’s milk.  Another misconception is that feta is a crumbly cheese. Feta actually belongs in the soft cheese category. It should be creamy and slice easily. In fact, in Greece feta is sold in large slices (hence the name). It would never be sold crumbled into pieces, as this is a sign of poor quality. There are also specific regions of Greece where the cheese must be made in order to be called feta. These regions are Macedonia, Thessalia, mainland Greece, the Peloponnese, and the island of Lesvos. The cheese must also undergo a two month maturing period in wooden barrels or metal containers, covered in brine. All of these steps are adhered to only in Greece. “Feta” made by American, Bulgarian, or other cheese manufacturers don’t adhere to the traditional processes of making the cheese. They often use cow’s milk, and don’t follow the process of maturing the cheese.

Still, some cheese makers argue that claiming ownership of a name, like feta, is “outrageous.”  In 2012 an association of non-European food producers formed the Consortium of Common Food Names (CCFN). The group is trying to fight the EU and the appropriation of food names. The executive director of the CCFN, Jaime Castaneda, recently conceded that feta is commonly viewed by consumers as a Greek cheese. In fact, many non-Greek manufacturers select Greek names and adopt Greek styles for packaging their product. But Castaneda argues that this does not mean that feta must be made in Greece in order to have the right to use the name. Others point out that feta made in Greece can’t be called feta if it isn’t made in the right region, and following traditional specifications. So why, they argue, should a “feta” made from cow’s milk in Wisconsin not be held to the same standards? Why should they be allowed to use the name feta when there are Greek dairy manufacturers that can’t even use the name?  It’s a bit like insisting that we call grape juice wine. The two products just aren’t the same, so why pretend they are?

Canada and the EU reached an agreement in their trade talks by utilizing the term feta-style instead of feta. But for now, both Greece and U.S. dairy exports have called this option “unacceptable.”

And so it seems, the cheese debate continues.

Marisa Churchill is a graduate of the California Culinary Academy, as well as a certified nutritionist. She has worked in many notable San Francisco restaurants. She is the host of My Sweet & Skinny Life, and author of the Sweet & Skinny cookbooks. She was a competitor on season 2 of Top Chef. Her work has also been featured on the Food Network, The Talk on CBS, Oprah.com, Food & Wine, and more!

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