Fears are growing in the dairy industry that a proposed EU trade deal could lead to an influx of cheaper Cheddar to the UK market.

EU representatives at the Doha round of global trade talks, led by commissioner Peter Mandelson, have proposed that dairy products could be classified as ‘sensitive goods’, which would make them eligible for special deals on tariffs.

Sensitive products can be nominated by any country or trading bloc at the talks and are subject to smaller tariff rate cuts than other products. However, in exchange countries have to open up a certain tonnage for import access to the EU.

For cheese, that quota could be as high as 80,000 tonnes on top of the existing 100,000 tonnes currently brought into the union. The UK produces about 380,000 tonnes of cheese annually.

“We’ve written to tell both the UK Government and the European Commission that offering import quotas for cheese would be a huge slip-up,” said director general Jim Begg. “Quota plans have been mooted and would inevitably result in tens of thousands of tonnes of imported, non-EU Cheddar hitting the UK market, potentially disrupting the UK cheese industry.” 

The sector’s confidence, which had been increasing, would also be undermined, Begg warned.

Discussions continued throughout the week and a deal could come into force as soon as next year.

Those countries most likely to benefit if the proposals are pushed through include Australia, New Zealand and Canada, all of which are known to be keen to increase the volume of their cheese exports to the European market.

The latest proposals will intensify the pressure being brought by the agriculture industry on Mandelson, who has been accused of sacrificing EU agriculture to help broker a deal. 

Farmers in Ireland, France and a number of other countries have held demonstrations against his tariff proposals.