It is by now clear that a hallmark trait of our foundation is that we conduct no official meetings behind closed doors. The MaYA Foundation is based on trust and transparency and we feel that this needs to be an ethos better embraced by other local organisations.
We have stated over and over again that the agricultural sector has for the past decades been subjected to "divide and rule" strategies. It is also not surprising that farmers and breeders are amongst the most susceptible segment of society to fall victim to such maneuvers due to their incredibly busy schedules and isolation. To counter such shattering actions there are two effective tools: transparency and communication. We are adamant to fulfil the former principle, and given our limited resources, we also aim to publicly communicate our actions to the best of our abilities. Being a voluntary organisation, with no one on the payroll, of course critically affects our outcome - yet we will continue to do our best.
1st Meeting with Malta Competition and Consumer Affairs Authority - Technical Regulations Division (MCCAA / MCCAA_TRD)
Following our objection to the "application for the protection of the product name “Ġbejna tan-nagħaġ” as a PDO" a meeting was called by MCCAA to discuss the reasons behind the points raised and possible ways forward.
Collaboration between Xirka Produtturi Nagħaġ u Moġħoż (Xirka) and the Malta Youth in Agriculture Foundation (MaYA) so far
During this meeting, MaYA representatives outlined that over the past years MaYA has been supporting Xirka in different ways.
- Various young farmers were urged to join the Xirka
- Constant valorisation actions of the main product produced by the Xirka members (launching and maintaining Ġbejna.org etc)
- Aiding in media presence
- Sharing with Xirka administration our expertise and professional contact base during and after submission of the first PDO application
MaYA has shown relentless support towards Xirka to protect the word Ġbejna and associate it strictly with sheep's milk as per peer-reviewed research. This was done in a myriad of ways including meeting up with representatives from DG Agri to promote the need for EU Quality Labels and participating in a popular local TV program 'Ninvestigaw x'qed nieklu' which tackled this issue.
Why is MaYA now objecting to the same organisation it was supporting a year ago?
Simply put, we cannot support the form the current application has now taken, which is to limit "Ġbejna" to be used as "Ġbejna tan-Nagħaġ" and which jeopardises the process by which the cheese is air-dried, when so many producers have invested so much in maintaining this traditional method. The artisanal Ġbejna is "tan-Nagħaġ" (from sheep) and this is what the PDO will be protecting. This also means, however, that we cannot leave the option for other "milk-types" of Ġbejna to pop up on the market and dilute the strength of the PDO.
The nature of arguments in MaYA's objections
MaYA repudiates the claim that the word "Ġbejna" has become a 'generic term'. It is by now public knowledge that the term is being contested by local stakeholders. The MCCAA official stated that after seeking legal advice MCCAA_TRD concluded that the word should not be solely used by sheep breeders. After asking whether MCCAA's position has been substantiated by studies or public surveys, the official said that the authority does not have the resources to conduct such research.
We cannot understand how such a sensitive issue, which will affect a large number of breeders and consequently the consumers, can rely solely on the advice of law professionals which is not backed by appropriate research as to the use of the term by the public and without consulting agricultural and food experts or at the very least verifying what the public has to say about the matter.
The second concern is about the introduction of a loophole that would allow for “Ġbejniet” to be mass-produced rather than protecting the Maltese artisanal production method. It is also noteworthy, that this was the only substantial change from the original application, that is, apart from the name to be protected. Such an amendment is not congruent with authenticity and craftsmanship nor is it in line with the raison d’etre of the PDO system.
With the above stated, we know that after an eventual acceptance of the current application (where the applicants included the phrase "Tan-Nagħaġ") there will be other applications for quality labels namely PDO for "Ġbejna Tal-Mogħoż", and quite possibly a PGI label for "Ġbejna Tal-Baqar". If at the moment the market is experiencing confusion in relation to the "Ġbejna", in the near future consumers will continue to face uncertainty as to what this cheese really is. Whatever the case, the sheep breeders are not going to end up in a good place.
During the meeting it was agreed that there are 3 possible ways forward:
1. MCCAA_TRD endorses the current application as it has been submitted by the applicants and as amended by them in its current form.
2. MCCAA_TRD rejects this current application, and as the official said, the country would have wasted resources and time, and would still be lacking an EU quality label for a food product.
3. MCCAA_TRD rejects the current application and a fresh application may be submitted.
In the next few days, a further meeting is being proposed by MCCAA, bringing together the applicant together with the objector/s.
We are not directly informed about any other individuals or organistions that might have also objected and what would have been the nature of their arguments. However, through email communication for the upcoming meeting with Xirka, we understand that there were also sheep breeders (members of the same Xirka) who objected to this current application.
We now await MCCAA's final decision. Hopefully, it would be one that leads to a simple aim - to truly, and effectively, safeguard the artisanal production of this local cheese!
Disclaimer: The above is a recollection of the salient points during the meeting as drawn by the Foundation.