Plans to begin work on a set of international production rules for parmesan have been shelved indefinitely by the Codex Alimentarius commission, the food safety standards body of the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and World Health Organisation (WHO).
Representatives from Codex members, including 171 countries and the EU, debated the issue on Parmesan cheese in different sessions over at least two days during its meeting in Rome last week.
Sources close to the meeting told www.DairyReporter.com that discussions had become "fairly heated" on Wednesday night as the debate went round and round for hours without a decision.
Yet, it was EU Commission representatives who finally succeeded in throwing out the issue. They have argued all along that Codex is the wrong forum to discuss the Parmesan tradename because it relates to rights on geographical indications (GIs) and intellectual property.
"A Parmesan standard could have a damaging effect on the intellectual property rights of producers and traders inside the EU. It would also set an unfortunate precedent, not just for GIs, but also for trademarks. What will be next?" Said the Commission.
The Consortium of Parmigiano-Reggiano Producers in Italy also raised fears that a Parmesan standard may set a GI precedent, arguing this may lead to global standards for a range of products including Colombian coffee, Basmati rice and Tanjani tea.
The EU Commission had threatened to disrupt Codex proceedings in a position statement. "If work on Parmesan were to be launched, the EC would have to oppose it at every stage of procedure. This raises the prospect of a phenomenal waste of Codex time."
Parmesan is the French-inspired tradename of Parmigiano-Reggiano - a protected designation of origin in the EU that may only be used by Italian producers based in the Parma, Modena, Reggio Emilia and Bologna provinces on the left bank of the Po river and Mantua on right bank.
As such, the EU Commission said it only wanted to debate the protected status of Parmesan in the World Trade Organisation (WTO). It said Codex's 1978 standard on 'Extra Hard Grating Cheese' was more than adequate to protect consumers.
The world's biggest Parmesan producers, the US and Argentina, were said to be dissatisfied with the Codex outcome, having argued the name is now widely used and therefore warrants a global production standard.
Where to go now
The Parmesan problem has been bouncing around in Codex discussions for several years. All eyes will now turn to the WTO, where debates over GIs has reached fever pitch. Both the US and EU claimed victory in a ruling earlier this year, despite opposing each other's stance.
Italian food firm Coldiretti has leapt to the defence of Italian producers this week, warning that Parmesan production has tripled in the US over the last 20 years, while exports of Parmigiano-Reggiano to non-EU countries had fallen.
US producers, on the other hand, have claimed that it would cost them millions of dollars to change the name of their Parmesan products.
The EU recently asked the European Court of Justice to fine Germany for selling cheese under the Parmesan tradename.