Lauraine Jacobs

Food Writer and Author of Delicious Books

Lauraine’s blog

23 August 2022


Imagine writing about food and being forbidden to mention feta cheese. That’s the fate we face as food writers in 2032. Feta, in all its forms, is a cheese most of us have grown to love, one we consider essential to salads, our cheeseboards and in numerous cooked dishes and importantly, in recipe writing.

The appointed New Zealand trade negotiators bowed to pressure during the recent round of ‘free’ trade talks where big inroads were made into the European Union for freer access for our fruit (kiwifruit, apples and more) and for services and manufactured goods. It would seem, as Daniel Shields, NZ Specialty Cheesemakers Association board member and lobbyist, says, “Our small business cheesemakers were expendable and became the bargaining chip in the negotiations. There was no real gain for New Zealand’s dairy and meat producers. The only concession was we now have nine years (previously five) before the name ‘feta’ is completely banned in cheese production here. That may be better than nothing and we were also permitted, under this round, to continue to use the terms gruyere and parmesan. But there’s no block to Europe in the future banning the words halloumi, havarti or any other on our locally made cheese.”

It’s a dilemma that New Zealand’s food and beverage production have had to face before. Remember the fuss over Champagne back in the nineties? That was predictable because Champagne is the name of a place and needed to be fiercely defended by the Champenoise. Especially in the face of marketing of brilliantly made wines from the new world posing a threat to this centuries-old tradition of that region of France. Kathie Bartley who was brand manager at Corbans, one of NZ’s largest wineries in the 90’s, remembers how they also had to cope with the use of the terms Burgundy, claret and other French wine terms being banned. “It was an expense we didn’t need but we overcame it with innovative names and our wine didn’t suffer long term.” Equally, there are alarm bells ringing in the hives of our honey industry currently as our scheming Aussie friends over the ditch attempt to cash in on the term Manuka. It’s a worry to see an overseas industry appropriating another country’s language on their labels, especially given the premium position our New Zealand honey producers have managed to establish worldwide. Let’s look at what this change for feta means for our cheesemakers and importantly, the implications for all of us who write about food in the coming years.

Authentic feta is the most famous cheese of Greece. As British food writer and Greek cuisine expert Rosemary Barron says in her highly regarded book Flavours of Greece, feta is “made from sheep’s milk exclusively, it is white and crumbly with a slightly sour, salty flavour, and stored in brine.” She goes on to write this cheese is best eaten young and will only last a few days when removed from the brine and refrigerated. And she recommends not to use feta in cooked dishes as cooking dissipates its fresh flavour. Feta has become a cheese made in many places. Denmark produces more feta than Greece and presently flies in a face of such rules continuing to label their cheese “feta.” If you walk around the cheese section of any of our supermarkets you will see imported feta from many countries. Bulgaria, whose feta is a big seller here, is already moving to re-labelling its cheese but as yet no obvious name has emerged. The UK has labelled feta as salad cheese for many years.

Back here in New Zealand currently feta has become a generic term for a range of salty white cheeses. Our Specialist Cheese Association regards feta as a category of cheese which includes cow, goat and sheep milk feta style cheeses. That must change. Specialist cheese makers are mainly our small artisans who make their cheeses on a small scale, in open vats using traditional methods. As Shields says, there is so much work to do over the next few years under this new dictum agreed to by the NZ Government and it is going to be expensive.

Will New Zealand find a name that the feta category can carry across the large range of cheeses that currently bear that name? Who will decide? Who will do all the work of rebranding? And who will pay? Kapiti cheese, a boutique cheese brand that adheres to the criteria of Specialist Cheesemakers for its artisan style cheese, is owned by parent company Fonterra. This task to rename cheeses was an exemplary job as the marketing team worked with local iwi to find suitable names using Te Reo Māori but they were still were widely criticised by some parties. Wisely Fonterra trademarked all those names and thus tell a great brand story but of course their use of Rarama, Pakari, Kōwhai, Te Tihi, Kirimi and more will not be shared with other New Zealand cheesemakers. We all wait the name that the end process will bestow on our home grown and produced feta. Wheta and Weta have been suggested but the rules prevent the use of anything remotely similar to feta. It is worth food writers thinking deeply about how to approach recipe writing, articles and story-telling over the next eight years. Will the word feta in our recipes and writing now cause future legal trouble once 2031 comes round? Will the use of feta in today’s recipes mean that after 2031 consumers will bypass local freshly made feta cheese in favour of turning to imports from countries where feta is permitted when appearing in a recipe? As one of the Food Writers Life Members, Kathy Paterson says, it is really important that New Zealand foodwriters get behind the dairy industry and not just spread the word about any changes in nomenclature, but also adopt with enthusiasm any new directions that the industry undertakes. We will become a very important part of consumer understanding of feta in the cheese industry’s future.

*This was originally published in Digest, the NZ Food Writers newsletter