The word on cheese

* 3 min read

The UK has, and always has had, a very strong market for cheese and cream. In the 52 weeks ending on 23rd April 2017, the UK consumer had spent £2,769,652,000 on cheese. 

Approximately half of that being spent on Cheddar, followed by the other traditional hard cheeses but soft continental cheeses and our own territorial blue cheeses are also on the increase [source: Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board]. Recent figures for cream are slightly harder to determine but it is known that in 2014 three hundred and one million litres of cream were sold and that represented a 13% increase over the previous 10 years [source: House of Commons Library, UK Dairy Industry statistics 2016].

The interest that the UK has in traditional hard cheeses and creams has been acknowledged in legislation for many generations. Most recently the Food Labelling Regulations 1996, as amended, provided protection for the following cheeses and creams. Specifically, cheeses are protected in terms of a maximum percentage of water and creams in terms of a maximum milk fat requirement:

Cheddar, Stilton, Derby, Leicester, Cheshire, Dunlop, Gloucester, Double Gloucester, Caerphilly, Wensleydale and Lancashire.

Clotted Cream, Double Cream, Whipping Cream, Whipped Cream, Sterilised Cream, Cream/Single Cream, Sterilised Half Cream, Half Cream.

With the emergence of the new European ‘Food Information to Consumers Regulation’ a few years ago, the UK law that protects the above standards for cheese and cream has been repealed in stages with the final provisions relating to products of this type being repealed at the end of 2018.

This state of affairs has understandably caused some consternation in various quarters with some fear, held both by consumers and the dairy industry that standards will deteriorate when the specific requirements are removed. Those with an interest in and memory of the UK compositional standards of the past cite fish cakes and meat and fish pastes, pates and spreads as examples of how standards have deteriorated as a result of deregulation.  

Others are less pessimistic and point out that the UK has some general provisions in law that protect the consumer without having to be highly prescriptive in terms of specific values. The Food Safety Act 1990 is cited as just such a piece of law, protecting consumers from foods that are not of the ‘nature, substance or quality’ demanded by the consumer and it is hence argued that there will in fact be no such serious detriment to the cheese and cream standards as consumers and enforcement agencies will not tolerate a consequential reduction in those standards.

Despite the above optimistic take on future matters, the more dominant view tends to be that some sort of formal approach should be adopted in order to retain the UK compositions as they are. Within the UK such desire is usually met by means of a code of practice as an initial approach, with legislation only if the guidance fails to protect consumers. It is widely believed and anticipated that a code of practice that will endeavour to retain the compositional standards that relate to cheese and cream as detailed above is being drafted.

Although a code of practice is not presently in the public domain, it is widely anticipated that the elements dealing with cream will essentially follow the requirements that are set within the current legal framework. The parts of the code dealing with cheese are thought to be more complex and in some degree more controversial. The driving force is likely to be that the names in question should be regarded as customary names. The concept of a ‘customary name’ is well established in law and retained in the EU ‘‘Food Information to Consumers Regulation’ mentioned above. Essentially, the argument is that a consumer has become so used to a certain product having a standard associated with it that a deterioration in that standard would lead to one of the more general offences in food law being committed as described previously.

The controversial part is that the cheese code is expected to sanction ‘reduced fat’ and ‘half fat’ variants using the traditional regional names as part of the product description as long as other specified determining factors are met – these factors will aim to ensure that the lower fat versions retain enough of the essential characteristics of the traditional cheese to support use of the name. These factors may not easily be defined, hence the controversy.

The compositional limits for these versions will be set to accommodate the requirements of European Legislation that deals with nutrition and health claims [EU Regulation 1924/2006].

A draft of the proposed code is expected to be circulated for comment soon.