Britain wades in as Cyprus is threatened by a cheese war

Fight to protect haloumi could deepen the enmity on this divided island

Britain has waded into the row over attempts by Cyprus to win protected status for haloumi cheese, with a warning that the move could inflame relations with the Turkish-Cypriots who share the divided island.

Cyprus has relaunched its controversial attempt to register haloumi as a protected designation of origin (PDO) product, amid complaints that the cheese could be copied around the world.

But, although the Cypriot government has pledged that it would include hellim, the Turkish name for haloumi, in the PDO, the application has already provoked official objections from the Turkish community in the north of the island.  Greek-Cypriot officials countered last night with a claim that their Turkish-Cypriot colleagues were more interested in “scoring political points” over the issue than looking after the interests of local dairy producers. The escalation in tensions came amid fears the cheese would fall victim to Cyprus’s financial crisis, after the owner of the British haloumi importer Cypressa said he could not pay suppliers because of bank closures.

The Foreign Office (FCO) has told the European Commission that its verdict on the PDO application must “ensure that its decision takes due account of inter-community relations”. A confidential FCO briefing on the issue stated that attempts to gain protection for haloumi could be used as a “confidence-building measure” that could improve relations between the two communities in Cyprus. But officials in the department warned that “the unilateral action of Greek-Cypriot producers has angered the Turkish Cypriots. They are concerned that an application which does not incorporate their views/requirements will damage hellim exports.”

The Cyprus milk industry organisation already owns the trademark for haloumi, but not for hellim. It is trying to appeal against an EU general court decision allowing a German company to market “hellim” products.

Previous attempts to gain PDO status for haloumi have foundered due to disagreements over the type and proportion of milk used. The Cyprus Agriculture Minister, Nicos Kouyialis, told farmers this month that Cyprus was about to enter discussions with European Commission officials over the objections.

The Cyprus High Commission in London confirmed last night that the proposed PDO application had been raised with Turkish Cypriots during “bi-communal talks”, and later at a  committee on economic and commercial matters. But a spokesman said: “The Turkish-Cypriot members of the committee responded by demanding the withdrawal of the application, the cancellation of the procedure and the launching of a new joint application, not through the competent authority.

“Regrettably the position of the Turkish-Cypriot members remained unchanged, thus revealing an approach which was seeking to score political points rather than genuinely aiming best to serve the interests of Turkish-Cypriot producers.”