Years of uncertainty on the definition of yoghurt could soon come to an end, with EU legislators planning to define the exact nature of the milk product. But the proposed definition has caused commotion amongst Spanish dairy producers in particular, according to a Reuters report.
Yoghurt is enjoyed by millions around the world on a daily basis, but when it comes to defining the humble milk product, confusion reigns, at least in Europe.
European legislation currently allows Member States to keep their own rules on minimum fat and protein levels in yoghurts. But, new draft legislation is attempting to lay down the law when it comes to distinguishing between live culture yoghurts and products which are heat treated.
The European Commission proposes that products that are heat treated after fermentation be called 'fermented milk' products, with only those containing live bacilli allowed to use the name yoghurt.
In some Member States such as the UK, companies are allowed to sell pasteurised dairy products that contain no live cultures under the yoghurt name, but in others, such as France, anything called yoghurt must contain live bacilli.
It is precisely this inconsistency that the EU regulators are attempting to regularise.
Among the most vociferous opponents of the draft proposals is Spain, where the yoghurt industry is a multi million euro business. Spain is another country where heat-treated products are allowed to use the yoghurt name, mainly as a result of a relentless campaign by Spanish company Leche Pascual, the biggest supplier of these products.
It convinced the Spanish government to alter the law and allow it to sell these UHT products as yoghurts by playing the national defence card - French group Danone is its main rival in the Spanish market, and a supporter of the live bacilli definition.
Pascual effectively persuaded Madrid that this was evidence of a foreign player trying to oust a domestic rival by using its influence to change the law - ironically, exactly what Pascual did.
But all of Pascual's lobbying could come to nought if the EU gets its way. Miriam Izquierdo, regulatory manager at Grupo Leche Pascual told Reuters that there were many reasons to oppose the draft proposals, not least because "'fermented milk' is an unattractive consumer label".
She added that the proposal threatened to limit trade and harm small producers which could not ensure cold temperatures up to the point of consumption.
"Hundreds of companies will be affected, as well as the distribution of a wide range of food products with yoghurt: bon bons, chocolate bars, muesli, cereals for babies, salad dressing, ice cream, butter, margarine and biscuits," Izquierdo told Rueters.
Live yoghurt has a limited shelf-life, and a change to the rules will impact exports in particular. But EU efforts to find a commmon position have come to naught, with too many vested interests at stake.
Of course, the Spanish are annoyed becasue the proposals would also put paid to any chance they had of getting their products sold in the French market - an important one for dairy product consumption.
With the proposed EU definition effectively strengthening France's stance, Spanish producers have little or no hope of selling their heat treated products on the other side of the Pyrenees - at least under the name yoghurt.