Award-winning Ontario cheese maker says Europe trade deal may reap rewards

LANCASTER, Ont. – As they’ve crossed the country for the past two weeks plugging the Canada-Europe free trade pact, Conservative cabinet ministers have posed with an Ontario tool maker, a Saskatchewan grocer and a British Columbia cattleman, to name a few.

But they can’t quite land Margaret Peters. Not yet, anyway.

“Most people are still apprehensive about what the outcome could be,” said Peters, an award-winning artisan cheese maker from just outside Lancaster, Ont., an hour’s drive southeast of Ottawa.

“If we don’t have full information, it’s not always good to endorse something until you have all the information.”

Peters is a successful Canadian entrepreneur who in the coming years is likely to face greater competition from European cheese producers once the deal is ratified.

Canadian dairy farmers are angry at the Harper government for the concessions it made to Europe in their sector to get an overall agreement in principle. Small artisan cheese makers from Ontario, Quebec and B.C. were cast as potential losers.

That didn’t stop the office of Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre from calling Peters a few days after Prime Minister Stephen Harper signed the agreement to offer her a celebratory photo-op in her Eastern Ontario cheese shop.

No thanks, Peters replied.

Since then, however, Peters has learned more about the implications of the deal, and she said she’s “getting a little more comfortable with it.”

She said she’s more than ready to compete with the Europeans because she’s confident she has a product that consumers will want. Vanquishing all her European competition with her first place finish in this fall’s Global Cheese Awards — her two-year old Lankaaster was declared “Supreme Global Champion” — fuels her optimism.

But Peters said she’s also wary of what she doesn’t know about the deal, and the fact that Harper has pledged to compensate cheese producers if their bottom lines take a hit from an influx of lower-priced European cheeses.

“If he’s saying that, he probably knows a little more than we do in that there could be a little more of a negative impact than we’re all seeing through the information that’s already been divulged.”

An internal European analysis obtained by The Canadian Press shows that the European Union is very happy with what it won from Canada in the dairy and cheese sector.

In particular, the Europeans said it is “remarkable” that Canada agreed to their demand on geographical indicators, which essentially patent the local names of their products.

The Europeans suggest this will give their cheeses — Asiago, Gorgonzola, feta, fontina and Munster, in particular — a competitive edge in the Canadian market.

“This solution for these five cheeses will allow Canadian consumers to clearly distinguish between real … feta and other type of feta,” the document says.

“Given the difficulty negotiating this, the outcome is remarkable and will make a real economic difference for European producers of these products.”

The Dairy Farmers of Canada and their Ontario counterpart both say the giveaways by the Harper government herald a bleak future for the country’s cheese industry. They conclude the free trade pact will eventually put Canadian cheese makers out of business.

Not so, said Peters.

“I don’t think the impact will be as negative as we all think,” she said.

In fact, she said, the open trade may “have some positive effects in that it’ll highlight the fact that cheese we make here in Canada, particularly in Ontario, Quebec and B.C.,” is of world-class quality.

Peters said she is confident her fellow Canadian cheese makers will be able to compete with the best of European cheese.

“It actually happened the same way where the wine industry was thinking that competition, with wide open trade, would definitely affect them in a negative way in terms of sales,” she said.

“But as with everything, once consumers know we have good quality here, the choices can be made.”