For the past couple of years, I’ve been keeping track of what’s going on with the Ġbejna saga, now I’m informed that the draft legal notice regulating the production and sale of the traditional Maltese Ġbejna is really in the final stages. Mind you, this has been in the pipeline at least for the past 9 years (click to download a report of a mission carried out in Malta by the European Commission, 2009).
Now, it is a known fact that collaboration is not a strong point of our rural communities. This situation alone has been hindering the Maltese farming sector from progressing to its full potential, but at the same time it has also been very convenient for those few with vested interests in agricultural products – not necessarily of local origin.
However, throughout the years more sheep farmers have joined a common organisation – Xirka tan-Nagħaġ u l-Mogħoż and the tacky strategy of ‘divide and conquer’ is losing its effectiveness, at least in this particular sector. Apart from the positive unity that has evolved amongst breeders, scientific studies conducted in 2012 provide enough groundwork for paving the way to have the Ġbejna recognised as a distinctive food product, at a local and EU level. Notwithstanding all of this headway, and after lengthy discussions with different entities, farmers are still waiting for the final go-ahead from relevant authorities.
One of the issues in question is whether this new piece of legislation will support subsistence or professional sheep farmers and ġbejna producers.
A number of ‘subsistence farmers’ are currently lobbying with politicians to protect their interests through this new legislation. They are pushing for the exemption of individuals who rear up to 7 sheep, from upgrading their food production facility to national and EU standards, with the pretext that ġbejniet produced in such households are not for trading purposes.
Ask yourself this question; which average family consumes over 80 ġbejniet on a daily basis? That is the potential amount of cheese produced with a herd of 7 sheep. This is certainly more than enough to feed a large family and also to enjoy a decent, on-the-side, part-time enterprise.
If this issue is given the green-light, an individual with a limited investment in a food production facility (i.e. a household kitchen), will remain in direct competition with a farmer who has spent thousands of Euros to ensure consumers are offered high standard and safe products. This has been creating a lot of unfair competition over the years, and is one of the factors that has led many breeders to call it a day.
Therefore the number of sheep to be established in this upcoming piece of legislation will be crucial in creating a clear distinction between subsistence farmers and those who are legitimately producing ġbejniet for commercial purposes.
If the number of sheep for subsistence farming is not lowered to 4 sheep or less, those farmers who have already upgraded their farm or are making plans to invest, can kiss their commercial activity goodbye! And with no real economic sustainability within the local market, we can also kiss goodbye our beloved traditional Ġbejna.
After years of following this, I can easily say that it is neither the lack of organisation amongst farmers, nor the lack of appreciation for the product, that is hindering progress. The main deficiency is in policy. A legal framework that does not work in favour of professional farmers is even worse than no policy at all.
Here we are not even touching on the notion of food fraud, that still exists, and no one seems to be bothered to tackle. Illegalities are known to be happening when it comes to the sourcing of milk, and through such potential loopholes in the upcoming legal notice criminal activity will only be encouraged. Farmers complain that there are limited checks happening at retail level. We have a situation where the farmer (milk producer and cheese processor) is being tested on a regular basis (ensuring safety at production level) while others who are selling the cheese, or retailers are not being scrutinised in the same way.
We know for a fact that most professional sheep farmers are having their sheep milk tested for somatic cell count and antibiotic residues every two weeks. This would give a clear picture of who is producing what, how much, and it also makes the products as traceable as possible. But this would only be the case if ALL of the commercial cheese producers were to be tested. As we stand authorities do not have the adequate resources to carry out enough testing. Apart from this, if a production unit is deemed to be for own-family consumption, this would exempt it from such testing.
One does not need to be an expert in the field to realise that things are not adding up. We know that a kilo of genuinely produced ġbejniet sells for an average of €28. So how come do we find “sheep ġbejniet” on large supermarket chains’ shelves selling at €18/kg?
Last but not least, this lack of recognition of the Ġbejna has resulted in farmers missing out on EU funding opportunities such as Measure 3.1, which is solely dedicated to quality labels. Since the basic legislation is not yet in place, no one is able to submit applications for funding with regards to the Ġbejna.
The only thing left to do now, is wait for our politicians in Parliament to cast their vote and hope for the best.