The MaYA Foundation, which aims to safeguard the long-term sustainability of the local agricultural sector even more so than individual farmers' and breeders’ needs, has been in discussions about, and promoting the need for PDOs of local products, since its inception in 2013.
The need for Malta to have its own protected food products has never been higher, and we were amongst the first to put pressure on the market to work towards this.
However, we cannot stand idle when we clearly know that EU policies and instruments will be used and abused in order to favour individual sectors, at the expense of others.
Hence, our foundation which is the only legitimate NGO focused on the future of young people in agriculture, is objecting to this revised application based on the following two important aspects:
1. The revised application specifies within the protected name the “source of milk”. This would weaken the validity of the PDO.
Throughout the centuries, the word Ġbejna (though it does originate from the Maltese word Ġobon - ‘cheese’), has been associated with this local type of cheese (raw sheeps’ milk). At face value the current submission might seem that it is protecting the product, but in the long term it will actually harm it.
It should also be noted that this area has been covered by research, and therefore anything that is decided should be mindful and respectful of the copyright arising in such recorded material. Recent academic studies show without any doubt that the Ġbejna should be made exclusively from raw Sheep’s milk (hence, the futile and dangerous inclusion of the word ‘tan-Nagħaġ’ literally meaning ‘of the Sheep’ in this current submission).
If this application goes through it will give rise (and by consequence ‘right’) to other PDOs such as “Ġbejniet tal-Mogħoż” (Goats’ Ġbejniet) and “Ġbejniet tal-Baqar” (Cows’ Ġbejniet). The need for the PDO is to reinforce the authentic product’s strong link with Maltese heritage and tradition, not to create further confusion within the market. Positioning “Ġbejna tan-nagħaġ” this way will, in the longer term, dilute the strength of the word “Ġbejna” and its association to “sheep’s milk”.
2. The introduction of a loophole which would allow for “Ġbejniet” to be mass-produced rather than protecting the Maltese artisanal production method.
In the revised version, the authors add this new sentence (highlighted in yellow):
“To obtain the ‘Ġbejna tan-nagħaġ niexfa’, the ‘Ġbejna tan-nagħaġ’ is dried in the ‘qanniċ’, a wooden or metal frame cupboard covered in wire or nylon mesh with a mesh size ≤2 mm.
The ‘qanniċ’ is placed outside in a ventilated area, normally on a rooftop, to air dry the ‘Ġbejna tan-nagħaġ’ in a natural environment in rural areas of the Maltese Islands. The time required for complete drying depends on the wind direction; northerly blowing wind (‘riħ fuq’) is considered better than southerly blowing wind (‘riħ isfel’). Alternatively, the ‘Ġbejna tan-nagħaġ’ can also be air-dried in assisted chambers. Once the ‘Ġbejna tan-nagħaġ’ has dried sufficiently, it can be sold as ‘Ġbejna tan-nagħaġ niexfa’ (Appendix A).”
‘Ġbejna’ Product Specification, Art. 5
Many sheep breeders (including young people) have been investing heavily (through personal, national and EU funds) to upgrade their farm holdings and workshops to reach EU standards, including the areas where to dry the Ġbejniet in the most traditional of methods - keeping high safety standards while embracing our heritage.
The highlighted addition is nothing but a prelude in order to facilitate the future protection of mass-produced items. This will fuel further the over-commercialisation of the cheese (whatever the source of milk) rather than incentivising producers to add value to this unique product which employs traditional methods.
Leaving such loopholes in the geographical indication means that the product will be more easily produced, pushing the prices (and profits) down and making it next to impossible for the responsible authorities (let alone the market) to properly identify the product and enforce compliance.
Great conflicts of interest within the state and the private sector
As far as we know, the only entity to object to the original application, and the reason why this applicant was forced to resubmit an application, is co-owned by the state (Malta Dairy Products Ltd.), while MCCAA (which, at best, is not an independent authority) shot down the application to favour a completely different sector.
The only other large-scale local company which produces cows’ milk cheese changed the name of its cheese slightly as soon as they realised that the sheep breeders were applying for the PDO. Their product is still thriving on local supermarket shelves.
In conclusion, we would be doing a great disservice to the local rural community and future consumers if we don’t point out that most sheep breeders around the Maltese Islands do not agree with, and were not even informed about this renewed application.
We appreciate that such instruments are there to work towards the conservation of local products. But in the local context, as it is, it will achieve exactly the opposite result. We strongly believe that if this application goes through, bona fide breeders will eventually succumb to the market forces if their method of production is not protected properly. Thus leading to a complete loss of a tradition which, up till now, is still around us.
In this spirit, we are looking forward to seeing amendments to this application, in order to protect the Ġbejna (plural Ġbejniet).