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Cheese-makers angry as noose tightens on holes in Emmental

Makers of Emmental say the size of the holes are a key element in the flavour. Switzerland Tourism

Swiss makers of the famous Emmental cheese - the one with the holes in it - are angry at pressure from the United States to change the way the product is made.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has put forward proposals to lower the minimum size of the holes, or “eyes”. Swiss Emmental manufacturers say the move would have a devastating effect on the taste and quality of the cheese exported to the US.

If the proposal is approved, and the Swiss makers don’t shrink the holes, they will be penalised with a lower quality grading.

The Swiss hold about 10 per cent of the market for Emmental in the US, which is the fourth biggest for Swiss exporters.

The proposals, published last month, are to widen the required size range for the majority of holes in Emmental cheese from the current 17.5-20.5mm to 9.5-20.5mm. The USDA is inviting comments on the proposals by mid-September, and aims to make a decision on the changes by November.

The department says the current range is very narrow and “agrees that this revision would result in Swiss cheese grade standards that more accurately reflect current marketing practices.”

It said that while cheese makers had no problems making Emmental with holes in the current required range, “the resulting product does not perform well on modern slicing equipment, and consumer preference points toward a smaller eye”.

Peter Eichenberger, head of marketing and communications at the Emmentaler Switzerland company, says the question of eye-size cannot be reduced to a marketing or packaging issue.

“In our production of the original, the eyes have a certain relation to taste. It’s very important that we do what we have been doing in the past in order to get this unbeatable taste,” he told swissinfo. “If you have to change the size of the eyes, this could well influence our main attribute.”

In theory the range has simply been widened, meaning Swiss cheese makers could continue producing Emmental with holes in the former range. But the USDA admits that failure to reduce the eye size will result in a lower quality grading.

“Should a manufacturer wish to produce cheese that meets the USDA standard they can do so on a voluntary basis,” explained Richard McKee, deputy administrator for dairy programmes in the USDA. “For it to receive a USDA grade it has to comply with the standard.”

Swiss cheese makers are apparently not the only ones who do not see eye-to-eye with the US authorities on their proposal. McKee told swissinfo the USDA had received a lot of negative responses.

“To date the comments in support of changes or in support of not changing, it’s round about 50-50.”

by Malcolm Shearmur and Samantha Tonkin

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR