Uproar in Switzerland after Swiss dairy bids to make cheese from German milk

A dairy in eastern Switzerland wants to import milk from Germany for their cheese, a move that has angered Swiss farmers.

Uproar in Switzerland after Swiss dairy bids to make cheese from German milk
Swiss milk for Swiss cheese. Photo by AFP

A cheese dairy from the St. Gallen Rhine Valley has submitted an application to the Federal Customs Administration for the permission to import three million litres of milk from Germany, according to a report by SRF public broadcaster. 

The regional milk producers association is urging Customs authorities to reject the request, as approving it would have “disastrous consequences” for Swiss farmers.

Markus Berner, managing director of the United Dairy Farmers told SRF that if the practice of importing milk from abroad were to catch on, the price of Swiss milk would quickly fall to EU levels, making it difficult for Swiss milk producers to make ends meet.

“When milk is imported, the value of Swiss milk will fall and we can’t accept that”, said Urs Werder, who runs a dairy farm in Toggenburg (SG), where he produces organic milk for Appenzeller cheese.

READ MORE: Fondue or fon-don’t: Row erupts over safety of Switzerland’s national dish 

Switzerland produces about 700 different varieties of cheese using only milk from Swiss cows.

Milk can only be imported if it is in short supply in Switzerland, which is not currently the case.

In order to protect local milk producers, high customs duties — 76 cents per litre —are levied on those who want to bring it from abroad for industrial use.

In the case of the St.Gallen dairy, the milk would be processed into cheese and then exported to Germany, so the producers are hoping customs duties will be eliminated.

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How Switzerland is protecting its cheeses from foreign influence

Neutral Switzerland has not been involved in any foreign wars for centuries, but lately the country has been doing battle over its cheese.

How Switzerland is protecting its cheeses from foreign influence

Makers of the country’s iconic Emmental and Gruyère cheeses have been locked in legal battles to protect their product from inferior foreign imitations. 

Named after the Bern’s Emmental valley where it is produced, the Emmental cheese has a distinctly mild and nutty taste and is also the only Swiss cheese with holes, which “range from the size of cherries to the size of nuts and are formed during the maturation process”, according to Switzerland Cheese Marketing board.

In Switzerland, the Emmental is protected by an AOP — Appellation d’Origine Protégée, which means the product is entirely made in its region of origin.

This label also means the cheese must meet strict criteria, such as the size of the holes, which should ideally be between two and four centimetres in diameter.

However, the Emmental is also made in France and Germany, but Swiss producers claim foreign cheese does not meet the same exacting standards and has little to do with the original recipe.

They have been fighting for years for better protection of the brand manufactured and sold outside Switzerland, but to avail: the European Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) ruled that “Emmental” doesn’t designate the geographical origin of the product, but only a certain type of cheese with holes.

This decision really cheesed the Swiss off and they filed a complaint against EUIPO’s decision with the General Court of the European Union, which will begin deliberations in September.

READ MORE: Ten varieties of cheese you should be able to identify if you live in Switzerland

However, the Emmental is not the only Swiss cheese caught up in an international legal tangle; Gruyère suffered a similar fate.

An American court ruled in January 2022 that ‘Gruyere cheese’ does not have to be made in the Gruyères region — or even in Switzerland, for that matter —in order to bear the name. 

Swiss cheesemakers said they would appeal the US ruling, but in the meantime the verdict grates on their nerves.

“Gruyère represents a centuries-old traditional recipe, and a region of Switzerland,” an angry Philippe Bardet, director of the Association of Swiss Gruyère Producers, told Switzerland’s Blick newspaper.

“When consumers buy a Gruyère in the United States, they have no idea what awaits them”, he said. “Does the cheese have holes? What milk was it made with?”

Bardet pointed out that Swiss Gruyère producers use only raw milk from cows that eat natural food  — pasture grass in summer and hay in winter .

But in  America, “they use cheap milk”, he said. 

READ MORE: Why are Swiss angry with Americans about Gruyere cheese?