Tom Elliott:     Now, Australian farmers want to export more of all sorts of products to Europe's half a billion people, but the European Union is playing hardball on negotiations. The risk is here that our producers will lose the right to market products such as prosecco, which is Italian champagne, or feta, sheep's milk cheese, or prosciutto, which is, you know, thin ham. Gorgonzola, parmesan. These are- the European Union is saying these are all regional names that can only be applied to products that are made in Europe.

Anyway, the man negotiating this deal with the EU is the Trade Minister Simon Birmingham. I spoke to him just before we went to air today and I began by asking him why the EU was so determined to get rid of these products, which we've been using for years.

Here's what he had to say.

[Excerpt]

Simon Birmingham:     So, this has come up as part of the EU's demands while we do the free trade agreement negotiations with them. Now, we're doing these negotiations because we want to give Australian farmers, businesses better access into a market of 500 million people, that despite having high tariffs and low quotas and big barriers to market entry at present, our producers have made it our third biggest export destination.

But of course they come back with their counter-demands as we seek better access terms, and what they seek here is the protection of around 400 names that they say are geographically important to their producers, particularly their farmers in the EU. So, we've published those names today to say to Australian industry: what do you think? What are of concern amongst these names? And that can help to inform us in the negotiations to come and to understand, you know, what might be acceptable and what's not acceptable.

Tom Elliott:      Let's take one of the big ones on the list; I've had a look through it: feta cheese. Now, feta is sheep's milk cheese, I think it originated in Greece. But are we saying that if we agree to what the EU says, Australian producers who make feta can no longer call it feta, either here or overseas?

Simon Birmingham:     That would be the extreme outcome. So, to take an analogy that we've already lived through in Australia, around 15 years or so ago the Australian wine industry struck an agreement with the EU around the use of wine terms and that saw us cease using phrases like Champagne or Rhine Riesling or Port as part of our wine making practices here. Of course, the Australian wine industry's gone from strength to strength since then, focused instead on selling Riesling but Australian Riesling identified as being from Australian wine regions, or Australian sparkling wine instead of Champagne and the like.

And so yes, at the extreme end of the feta equation, if the EU were to get entirely their way, it could see cessation of the use of the term feta. But there may also be a number of compromise points that we could strike with the EU that still allow presentation of Australian feta or feta-like cheese, or indeed grandfathering provisions potentially for some producers. So, we want to hear from industry first as to their views and to better understand the economic value of each of these products to Australian producers. And then we can go back and work through with the EU, as I say, what we're willing to accept and what we're not willing to accept. And we'll only do a trade deal with them if on the whole, we deem it to be in the best interest of Australia to keep growing our exports and our economy.

Tom Elliott:      Now, I don't know if you enjoy a gourmet pizza on a Friday night but I see that prosciutto is also on the list. So you can't have a rocket prosciutto and cheese pizza. I mean, are we really likely to use or lose the right to use the word like prosciutto, which is a pretty common noun?

[Excerpt]

Voiceover:        When I was young, my father teach me three things: salami, prosciutto and a concrete.

[End of excerpt]

Simon Birmingham:     So, unlike feta, which is on the list simply as feta, prosciutto is a good example that the vast majority of the 400 terms they're seeking are actually quite precise. So there are three different variations of prosciutto that are on the list the EU seeks: prosciutto di Parma, prosciutto di San Daniele, and prosciutto Toscano. Apologies for Italian pronunciation there. If we were to agree – and it still remains, I underline if because we've agreed nothing at present – but if we were to agree to protect those three terms, it would only be used exactly as they're presented. Australian producers that still make prosciutto can call it prosciutto, sell it as prosciutto, and that would not be impacted by the deal. They just wouldn't be able to essentially pass it off as the EU [indistinct] as being prosciutto from Tuscany.

Tom Elliott:      Right.

Simon Birmingham:     And of course, we should have great pride in the high quality of our produce, and Australian producers do have that pride and I'm confident that for many of these precise geographical terms the EU seeks, they probably pose little to no concern to Australian industry at all.

Tom Elliott:      Okay. So, final question. I mean, if we have to bend over backwards like the wine industry did and essentially give up a lot of the French and German terms, the regional terms for wine, like we can't call sparkling champagne and that sort of thing, let's say it applies to feta, it applies to prosciutto, it applies to gorgonzola; are the trade benefits with the EU- do they more than offset having to give up the use of those common terms?

Simon Birmingham:     Well, we won't do a deal if we don't get something that, as I say, overall in the national interest and will help our farmers and businesses to sell substantially more into the future. And to give a couple of examples in terms of other areas where there's real upside – today, as I've been touring regional Victoria, talking to those in the dairy sector, those at the production and at the farm level, as well as visiting Montague orchards, an apple producer here in Victoria and operating across Australia. They currently face a 9 per cent tariff on their apples that they sell into the EU. And they still do business, but they're at a real cost disadvantage, where South Africa, for example, as a competitor, don't face any tariffs. So, if we can get that tariff ideally eliminated or at least substantially reduced, that will help those apple producers. In the case of sheep meat, New Zealand has a quota that they're allowed to send tariff-free sheep meat into the EU but in many multiples what Australia is allowed to send. We want a fair deal relative to the Kiwis or relative to the South Africans to help all of these producers get better access, and that's before we turn into looking at things like the services sector and the huge opportunities if we can get better mutual recognition in terms for specialist services in engineering and other domains that Australia can sell into the EU too.

Tom Elliott:      Simon Birmingham, thank you for your time.

Simon Birmingham:     My pleasure, Tom. Thank you.

[End of excerpt]

Tom Elliott:     Well, that was Simon Birmingham. I spoke to him just before the show started. Well, it seems like we might lose the right to produce things called feta and prosciutto and gorgonzola. We can still make them. We're going to have to think of something else to call them.

Media enquiries

  • Minister's office: (02) 6277 7420
  • DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555