Ciao for now to Italian Parmesan claim

By Neil Merrett

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Kraft foods, Parmigiano-reggiano

Parmesan cheese could soon be as Italian as frankfurter sausages,
baguettes or steak and kidney pie, if the findings of a European
Court of Justice adviser are upheld.

EU advocate general Jan Mazak yesterday called for the court to dismiss claims by the European Commission that the term "Parmesan"​ cannot be used to describe some hard cheeses made in Germany. The decision could set an important precedent for other disputes over the EU's geographical indications (GI) system, adopted to restrict the manufacture of certain products to geographical areas or methods needed to preserve quality. Mazak's opinion, which will be considered by the court, was posted on the European Court of Justice Internet site. It relates to a case brought against Germany by the Commission, which is trying to enforce its 1996 decision in favour of Italy. The GI system is broken down into classifications on protected designations of origin (PDO), protected geographical indication (PGI), and traditional speciality guaranteed (TSG) food and drink products. PDOs, such as granted to Roquefort cheese, must be produced, processed and prepared in a given geographical area using a recognised, specified method. PGIs, such as Newcastle Brown Ale, require a link between at least one stage of production, processing or preparation and the region, place or country of origin. TSGs, such as the Belgian cherry-flavoured beer Kriek, highlight the traditional composition or a traditional method of processing or preparation of a product. In the case of the Italian cheese the Commission had argued that the name Parmesan was translated from an existing PDO that exists for "Parmigiano Reggiano"​, and as such should only be used on cheese from a designated zone around Parma and Reggio Emilia in Italy where the name originated. The German government's response has been that while "Parmesan"​ may have originated in the Parma region, it is now a generic term for hard cheese of many geographic origins. Therefore the government claims parmesan is now used as a general term and as such, is not in violation of the existing PDO for "Parmigiano Reggiano"​. It is this latter view that Mazak has sided with, keeping the door open in the process for Parmesan to be used on any hard cheese produced around the world. The decision of the court, if it follows Mazak's advice, will strongly favour foreign producers like Kraft Foods, which have long wished to put their own mark on Parmesan production. The decision is likely to receive a less enthusiastic response from Italy's "Parmigiano Reggiano"​ industry though, which though enjoying improving exports sales, is slowly losing its heritage. Numbers of in the region have been dwindling since the end of World War Two, when there were more than 2,000 groups huddled on the small pocket of northern Italy manufacturing the cheese. By the end of last year are 492, down from more than 500 in 2005, according to the official Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium. Only a handful of truly independent businesses remain in this bloc too, after many pooled their resources in co-operatives to reduce costs and up profits. Export markets are perhaps the biggest hope. There was 15,000 tonnes more Parmesan going abroad in 2005 than in 2001, Consortium figures show, with gains in both the developed world and emerging markets. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2005 allowed Kraft Foods to lower the minimum required curing period to six months from the current 10 months. In Italy, Parmigiano-Reggiano producers must cure the cheese for at least 12 months. The reduction was based on the claim that this shorter period increased productivity, improved product consistency and reduced production costs with no material disadvantage to consumers. Kraft Foods claims that technology has continued to improve and Parmesan cheese is now able to be produced within a curing period of six months. In its petition, Kraft Foods states that its procedure involves the use of an improved enzyme technology but is otherwise consistent with the processing and curing techniques it has followed for many years. Using commercially-available safe and suitable enzymes and the current procedures, Kraft Foods states that it is possible to produce fully-cured Parmesan cheese suitable for grating in six months. This is opposed to the 10-month minimum curing time currently required by the US' standard of identity. Kraft Foods states that the modern manufacturing procedures, commercially-available enzymes, and modern equipment that it uses are generally available to enable any knowledgeable processor to produce the cheese in the same way. According to its petition, Kraft Foods claims that Parmesan cheese cured for six months is physically and organoleptically equivalent to current Parmesan cheese cured for 10 months. In addition, consumer taste panels confirmed that the grated six-month cured product is considered to be equivalent in taste, texture and cooking properties to grated parmesan cheese currently available to consumers, the company claims. Kraft Foods also states that the shortened curing time has no effect on the nutrition profile of the product. Kraft Foods stated its six-month product is "just as wholesome as other such cheeses available to consumers''. ​Kraft Foods states that the proposed amendment would reduce the cost of inventory and reduce losses from damage during the additional four-month holding period. "Therefore, the shorter curing time may also make it possible for manufacturers to devote some of their production resources to the manufacture of other cheese products, thereby maximizing the use of plant resources and increasing production efficiencies,"​ the company claims.

Related topics: Ingredients

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