A decision by the Swiss department of agriculture to go ahead with the registration of Raclette du Valais as a protected denomination of origin has led to fierce criticism from cheese makers across the country, most of whom will now not be able to use the name. Foreign producers, on the hand, will be exempted from the regulation.
The department received more than 50 complaints about the proposal, but decided nonetheless that the term raclette was not generic and should only refer to cheese made in the traditional manner in the Valais canton.
Most of the complaints, not surprisingly, came from other cheese makers concerned that the registration would prevent them from using the raclette name for cheese not made in the canton - instead, they claimed that the term was generic and could be used to refer to cheese made in a similar fashion anywhere in the world, or indeed to the dish of melted cheese and potatoes in which the cheese is most commonly used.
But the department said that it had clear evidence that melting cheese on the fire to add to dishes was common practice in Valais as early as 1574, and that the term raclette first appeared in the late 19th century to describe the dish prepared in this way. By the start of the 20th century, the term referred to both the cheese and the dish, the authorities claimed.
Under Swiss law, for a term to be considered as generic rather than specific there must be clear documentary evidence that it has been used in this way for decades and that any link between the name and its original place of creation no longer exist.
But a survey of Swiss consumers showed that 43 per cent of those questioned still consider raclette to refer to the Valais cheese. The department conceded that the term was becoming increasingly used in the generic sense - and that a large proportion of raclette production in fact took place outside Valais - but that this was not enough for it to be considered as a wholly generic term.
As a result, it said that the term Raclette du Valais would be registered as a denomination of origin.
Discussions are still under way with the Swiss dairy industry over the possible co-existence of the terms raclette and Raclette du Valais, and companies or organisations will have the opportunity to appeal against the decision before it passes into law.
Emmi on the attack
One company which has already said it will be appealing against the decision is Emmi, one of Switzerland's biggest cheese makers (although it is best known as a make of Emmenthaler rather than raclette).
Emmi said it was amazed at the decision which would harm Swiss producers while allowing foreign cheese makers to continue to use the raclette name unhindered.
The company said that 87 per cent (12,000 tons) of the raclette cheese on sale in Switzerland was not made in the Valais region, and that while it was seen as a recognisably Swiss product, there was no need to impose any further restrictions on the use of the name.
Emmi produces 5,000 tons of raclette each year, worth around SF50 million, and in recent years the company has invested more than SF12 million in its raclette cheese production facilities in Landquart and Emmen.
The company said that the facility in Landquart was now under serious threat, adding that it would never have agreed to continue raclette production there after acquiring the plant from bankrupt group Swiss Dairy Foods if it had known there was a threat the use of the name.
"The decision is an act of Swiss self-discrimination," the company said. "We fail to understand why importers, but not the Swiss producers, should be allowed to use the term raclette cheese for a Swiss product. According to the bilateral agreements, the Swiss borders will be wide open for cheese in four years from now. The producers in the Valais region are unable to meet the demand and as a result, the Swiss market will be flooded with raclette cheese from abroad."
At present, imports account for just 2,000 tons each year.
Emmi is not the only company complaining about the decision - in fact, most other raclette producers consider it madness as well. Raclette Suisse, the association which groups together Switzerland's various raclette producers, echoed Emmi's condemnation of the decision, calling an "own goal for the Swiss dairy industry".
Like Emmi, the association will appeal against the decision, saying that 40 years of legal raclette production outside the Valais canton cannot simply be swept away overnight, especially not after the considerable investment in production facilities outside the canton over that period.
The association said that while it had always supported the registration of Raclette du Valais as an AOC product, recognising the origins of the product, it had never envisaged that this would be to the detriment of producers elsewhere in Switzerland who supply the vast majority of raclette cheese sold there.
The AOC designation would give Valaisan producers a marketing advantage, allowing them to play on the premium positioning this would give them in relation to other Swiss and foreign raclette products, the association said - but this would only work if other producers were allowed to continue to use the generic term.
The association said that it therefore had no choice but to take legal action against the government for its unthinkable decision, a move which would entail considerable cost to raclette producers.