NICOSIA — The European Union has recognized halloumi as a traditional product of Cyprus, which will shield the country's top food export from an increasing number of foreign producers using the cheese's name to muscle into a 224-million-euro ($267 million) market, the Cypriot agriculture minister said Tuesday.
Costas Kadis said that after a seven-year effort, the salty rubbery cheese made from goats' and sheep's milk that's prized for its ability to withstand melting on the grill, has earned the EU's top quality mark— the Protected Designation of Origin. That means that only Cypriot halloumi — or hellim in Turkish — can be marketed abroad under that name.
The EU has made no official announcement on the matter.
Kadis said the timing of the designation was crucial as more competitors trying to cash in on the cheese's popularity were taking advantage of the legal void to market their own version of halloumi under that name that doesn't necessarily conform to traditional standards. The minister said Cyprus is currently involved in 80 court cases against foreign producers who "unlawfully" use the halloumi name to market their cheese.
The agreement appears to have overcome a key obstacle that stems from the ethnically divided island nation's complex politics. Turkish Cypriots have wanted to export the cheese directly from their self-declared state in the country's northern third that's recognized only by Turkey. International laws prohibit that.
Cyprus was split along ethnic lines in 1974 when Turkey invaded in the wake of a coup by supporters of union with Greece. The country joined the EU in 2004, but the bloc's rules and regulations only apply to the southern, Greek Cypriot part of the island led by an internationally recognized government.
Kadis said that the Cypriot government has authorized Bureau Veritas — a European body that certifies food and agricultural products — to perform checks on halloumi, or hellim, produced on both sides of the ethnic divide to ensure it meets exact quality specifications.
A separate, international body will carry out health and safety checks on both Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot producers.
Turkish Cypriot hellim that meets quality, health and safety standards will be able to cross the 180-kilometer (120) United Nations buffer zone separating the two sides, under an existing trade agreement to be exported through southern harbors and airports.
Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades hailed the agreement as "historic" in giving the country a significant economic boost that will benefit both Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots.
"It's a strong message… that I'm sending to Turkish Cypriots about all the benefits we can reap from the protections that the European Union can offer," Anastasiades said.
Cypriot dairy farmers refer to halloumi as "white gold" because it's Cyprus' second-biggest export behind medicines. Between 2017-19, halloumi exports shot up 43% to 33,672 tons. The biggest halloumi importers are the U.K., Sweden, Germany and Greece.
Turkish Cypriot officials have acknowledged that a PDO deal on halloumi has been reached, but have yet to comment on the deal's contents. According to Turkish Cypriot figures, 13 Turkish Cypriot hellim producers export around 30 million euros' ($35 million) worth of the cheese to Turkey and Gulf countries. The cheese reaches Gulf nations through Turkey.