If European trade negotiators get their way, there may be no such thing in future as Mexican manchego cheese.
A push to ban the use of European names for Mexican-made cheeses was among the sticking points that prevented Mexico and the European Union (EU) from concluding an updated trade deal before the end of last year.
The two parties first launched negotiations to modernize their Global Agreement in May 2016. Last month, Economy Secretary Ildefonso Guajardo traveled to Brussels, Belgium, to try to reach consensus on the new deal with his EU counterpart.
But while significant progress was made, it ultimately proved insufficient to reach a final agreement.
The EU proposal for geographical indication (GI) protection for 57 European-origin cheeses, which would prevent many Mexican cheesemakers from calling their products by their well-known and established names, is one of the most contentious issues.
A group of 130 Mexican cheesemakers launched legal action in December to stop the federal government from agreeing to the EU plan.
The president of the National Chamber of the Dairy Industry (Canilec), Miguel Ángel García Paredes, said that Mexico already complied with 30 of the 57 European requests but hoped to maintain the right to use the remaining names.
Among the contested cheese names are manchego, parmesan and gruyere, which originate from Spain, Italy and Switzerland respectively.
Retaining the right to use the manchego denomination was particularly important, García said, given the volume of the variety that is produced and sold in Mexico.
“For decades, the concept of manchego in Mexico has been used to identify a cheese that consumers know very well [and] that is different from the Spanish one,” the dairy industry head told the newspaper Milenio.
“Our argument is that it’s a generic concept and it is not trying to steal the name of manchego from Spain,” he argued, adding that he hoped that an agreement between the two parties could be reached in the first quarter of 2018.
García has an ally in the vice-president for negotiation of the Mexican Business Council for Foreign Trade, who countered the EU proposal by saying that the argument to prohibit the use of European cheese names was not valid.
Mexican producers have acquired rights to the names because they have been making cheeses using European processes for years, Eugenio Salinas said.
“It is not intended to deceive anyone in the sense that nowhere does [the packaging] say manchego cheese from La Mancha, nor does anyone claim to say it’s feta from Greece. They are brands and processes [that have been] used for many years . . . [and] on the label it says that it was made in Mexico,” he said.
Salinas told the newspaper El Universal that producers in Mexico would continue to make cheese using European processes even if they had to change the name of their products. As long as the cheese is not labeled falsely as a European import, there is no impact on the European cheese industry, he said.
It is not just cheese, however, that has delayed the completion of the bilateral agreement.
In total, the EU tabled a list of around 400 food and beverage products that it says should enjoy GI protection. About 60 of them are opposed by the Mexican business sector.
Investment protection and trade rules are other outstanding issues.
The EU wants Mexico to open up its public procurement markets, allowing European companies to compete for government contracts. While Mexico agrees with the proposal in principle, it faces constitutional hurdles to get states to agree in order to make it a reality.
The EU and Mexico also have very different rules of origin systems and ensuring that one is compatible with the other is another barrier that needs to be overcome before the agreement can be finalized. There is also resistance from the EU to open up its agricultural market to Mexican beef, sugar and fruit.
EU trade chief Cecilia Malmström said during Guajardo’s visit that “we are confident we can solve all the remaining political issues. But we need a little bit more time.”
In turn, Guajardo told reporters in the Belgian capital that “we need to find ways of coexistence of our systems [of protection of origin denomination].”
Negotiations to modernize the EU-Mexico deal come as Mexico seeks to diversify its trade agreements during the current process to update the 24-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
The sixth round of discussions, that have so far been characterized by hardline demands and rhetoric from the United States, will take place in Montreal, Canada, later this month.