Cyprus defends its famous cheese against Swedish smear, alludes to ‘trade war’
By Evie Andreou and Lizzy Ioannidou
Angry cheese producers, farmers and officials on Friday spoke of a ‘trade war’ with Sweden over halloumi, which is growing in popularity in the Scandinavian country but has become the victim of a sustainability debate due to the island’s high use of antibiotics in farming.
Agriculture Minister Costas Kadis called it “the defamation of halloumi”.
Although it was made clear in Sweden that the cheese itself does not contain antibiotics, Anna Richert, a food expert at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) told Swedish television that eating Cyprus halloumi could be worse than eating meat because of the high levels of antibiotics Cypriot farmers give their animals.
This, she said, meant people concerned with the environment should be aware that there were issues of sustainability related to the cheese. “I think that consumers deserve to know more about this. I think it is a reason to be very careful when choosing products from Cyprus in shops,” Richert said.
In recent years, Sweden has become the second-biggest importer of halloumi after the UK, having become increasingly popular among Sweden’s growing number of people who avoid meat for health and environmental reasons.
But labelling halloumi as just as bad or worse than meat in terms of sustainability caused an angry backlash on Friday in Cyprus, where some accused the Swedes of engaging in a ‘trade war’ in an attempt to push their own cheeses.
“I am 100 per cent certain there is a war on our product because in 2010 we exported 21 tonnes of halloumi to Sweden, in 2019 we exported 4,000 tonnes,” said the deputy head of the state veterinary services Christodoulos Pipis.
“The rising popularity of halloumi and the preference of Swedes for it, those who chose to be vegetarians and substitute meat with halloumi burgers… you can imagine how much this has affected local [Swedish] cheese products, while producers in Sweden cannot produce halloumi and call it such,” he added, in statements to Cybc on Friday night.
The head of the cow farmer’s association Nicos Papakyriakou also said the reports were not accurate. He said that there were “expediencies” at work.
“There was recently a dispute between the government and Sweden on halloumi, so as you can understand there are interests concerning other cheese products because in Sweden they produce products similar to halloumi,” he said. Head of the association of goat and sheep farmers, Panicos Constantinou also said there were expediencies at play and “a polemic against halloumi”. “If they come and check they will verify that cows, goats and sheep are administered the lowest amount of antibiotics,” he said.
The head of the cheesemakers association, Giorgos Petrou spoke of “a campaign aimed at hurting Cypriot halloumi”.
“Some people seeing the great rise of halloumi seem to want to incriminate it in order to sell their own cheeses,” he told CNA. He also spoke to companies operating abroad trying to copy halloumi. Similar cheeses have already begun to be produced in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, he added.
Referring to the antibiotic smear, though it was made clear it was not an issue of antibiotics in the milk, Petrou said such a thing would not be in any farmer’s interest as it was not possible to produce yoghurt, a probiotic, from milk containing antibiotics.
Agriculture Minister Costas Kadis said earlier on Friday that in fact the reports by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) that outline the level of antibiotic use in farming were wrong. The 2016 report puts Cyprus at the top of the list for feeding antibiotics to industrial farm animals.
Kadis said antibiotics were administered by farmers to 70 per cent of pigs and poultry, but not to milk-producing livestock, which are only given to them when they are young and are not yet used for the production of milk.
“Therefore, the relation of such substances with halloumi is essentially non -existent,” Kadis stressed.
Referring to the EMA report, Kadis said that the organisation does not take into consideration important parameters which would give Cyprus a much lower ranking.
Among other things, he said antibiotics are bought in the areas under the control of the Republic and are then channeled to the north. He did not explain how exactly that worked but the reasoning seemed to be that the animals in the government-controlled areas were counted vis-à-vis total antibiotic sales but not those animals in the north, meaning the antibiotic levels then looked higher for the Republic.
Kadis added, correctly, that the EMA formula did not take into account the hundreds of thousands of goats in Cyprus. The use of antibiotics in these animals was lower by far, and if that factor was taken into account results would have been lower.
“Wrong parameters have been calculated – because in other countries goat milk is not used in the production of cheese products so 50 per cent of the Cypriot goats were not calculated in the formula used to calculate the percentage of use of antibiotics,” said Pipis. “The bigger the number of the animals, the lower the [antibiotics] result,” he added.
The EMA report does in fact state: “If goats had been included… the total annual sales… would have been approximately 10 per cent lower”. Cyprus would still be at the top of the list however as the second country on the index, Spain, was already trailing Cyprus by a significant gap.
Kadis also pointed out that the EMA report ranked Cyprus third from last regarding its use of critically harmful antibiotics.
He said it was probably not a coincidence that this form of commentary about halloumi was emerging at this point in time, even though reports had noted Cyprus’ high use of antibiotics in animals since 2009. He suggested the move had the end goal of diverting consumers to local Swedish products rather than to the imported Cyprus products. “One can only associate this defamation with the very high demand for halloumi of Cypriot origin,” Kades said.
He also said the EMA’s new report, due out soon would show a substantial drop in the use of antibiotics in Cyprus.
The 2016 report notes that Cyprus had drawn up a five-year action plan to combat the use of antibiotics, which was prepared by the veterinary services, which contains several types of measures including: awareness-raising campaigns; strengthening the prevention of infections in food-producing animals and recommendations on the prudent use of antimicrobials which are in line with EC published guidance.
A separate and specific action plan was considered necessary to address the high level of veterinary antimicrobial sales in Cyprus over the last few years, the EMA said.
CNA reported on Friday that following Richert’s warning, representatives of large Swedish supermarkets which import halloumi visited Cyprus farms and cheesemakers and were assured of the quality criteria upheld during the production of the cheese.