Cheesed off: Spain’s manchego makers vow to fight EU name ruling

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EU says Mexican producers can use manchego name to describe their cheaper, cow’s milk cheese.
Makers and lovers of manchego, Spain’s famous sheep’s milk cheese, have vowed to fight an EU decision allowing Mexican producers to carry on using the same name to describe their cheaper, cow’s milk cheese.

A battle over ownership of the name had delayed a major trade deal between the EU and Mexico for months, but agreement was finally reached over the weekend in a deal that will allow 99% of goods to be traded between Mexico and the EU on a tariff-free basis.

However the agreement on manchego cheese, while giving the Spanish variant some extra protections against copycats when sold in Mexico, will allow both types of cheese to share the same name and sit on the same shelves in that country.

The European commissioner for agriculture, Phil Hogan, insisted careful packaging would make the origins of the two cheeses clear. “The specific labelling provisions will ensure that there is no confusion for the consumer as for the origin and composition of the product and any reference to the original Spanish products will not be allowed [on the Mexican product’s packaging],” he told reporters in Brussels.

Hogan continued: “I think that farmers in Mexico in relation to manchego cheese will be happy; I think the Spaniards will be happy too.”

However, Spanish cheesemakers are far from thrilled. They had been seeking exclusive use of the word manchego in Mexico, arguing it should be used only to describe their hard cheese. The cheese has enjoyed the exclusive use of the brand in the EU since 1982.

“We will use any and all legal means at our disposal to appeal this decision,” said Martín Esteso, a spokesman for Spain’s largest farmers’ union, Asaja.

“The whole thing is just nonsense: they can’t use our name for a cheese that is not pure manchego cheese made from the milk of manchega ewes.”

Esteso, whose family have been producing the cheese for four generations, said the word manchego should only be used to describe something with links to the central Spanish region of La Mancha – “like Don Quixote or Sancho Panza”.

It was all about quality and clarity, he argued. While Spanish manchego sells for around $15/kg, its Mexican namesake fetches around half that and is typically used to stuff quesadillas.

“It’s not about consumers in Mexico getting confused, it’s about consumers all around the world getting confused between their cow’s milk cheese and our ewe’s milk cheese because both will have the same name.”

Ismael Álvarez de Toledo, the president of the Spanish Brotherhood of the Manchego Cheese, said the commissioner had put “other international interests” ahead of those of food producers within the EU and pointed out that manchego was a demonym.

“The word manchego, like the word Scottish, Welsh, Riojan or Extremaduran, refers to a place,” he said. “A manchego can be a man from La Mancha or a cheese from La Mancha. It can’t refer to a man from Mexico or a cow from Mexico or a cheese from Mexico.”

If the EU did not defend the products of its own producers, he added, “what’s to stop someone from Guatemala or Paraguay deciding to call their drink scotch whisky or their wine Rioja or Bordeaux or champagne?”