After an eleven year tussle between numerous EU member states over exclusive rights to the ‘feta’ brand name for cheese, the European Court of Justice has made its final pronouncement. Does it mean the end of the line for feta cheese from the UK, Denmark and Germany?
Who: Germany, Denmark, France and the UK -v- the European Commission and Greece
Where: The European Court of Justice, Luxembourg
When: October 2005
The end of the line was reached in an 11 year long battle over the Greek Government's attempts to obtain a monopoly right over use of the word 'feta' in respect of cheese products.
The judgement of the European Court of Justice arose from a challenge, by no less than four other European Union states including the UK, to the registration of "feta" as a "protected designation of origin." ("PDO").
The "PDO" and "Protected Geographical Indication" regime were introduced in the early 90s. The driver was the desire of EU member states with particular nationally produced products to which well known names attached. The objective was to prevent unauthorised use of these names for products which either emanated from different countries or were manufactured other than by using the established process for their manufacture protected in the country of origin.
The feta registration as a PDO was challenged by an umber of member states on the basis that "feta" had for a considerable time been used by other states in respect of cheese products and had therefore become generic. Over the ensuing years feta was in and out of the PDO list like a revolving door, but this hearing before the ECJ was the last gasp.
Having heard days of culinary, historical and even archaeological evidence about the distinctive briny cheese, the ECJ ruled that feta, which claims a 6,000 year history in Greece, did deserve PDO status.
Feta cheese made in France since 1930's argument rejected
In so finding, the ECJ trashed arguments by Denmark and others that Greece could not any longer claim a monopoly right after feta production had commenced in France and Denmark in the 1930s and in Germany in 1972.
The ECJ determined that this was only one of a number of factors that should be taken into account in registering a PDO. At the end of the day, production of feta still apparently remained concentrated in Greece, where 85% of feta consumption still occurred.
Also persuasive for the Appeal Judges was the fact that in member states other than Greece, feta was commonly marketed with labels referring to Greek cultural traditions and civilisation. From this it could be inferred that consumers in other member states still perceived feta as a cheese associated with Greece. Accordingly the challenge to the PDO on generic grounds failed, thus bringing to an end years long battles by those such as Yorkshire-based Shepherd's Purse Cheeses to protect their right to sell "Yorkshire Feta".
Why this matters:
PDO status is conferred on British products such as Whitstables Oysters, Cornish Clotted Cream and Newcastle Brown Ale. In this case a significant number of member states lined up against Greece and the Commission, and despite its reliance on apparently flimsy arguments such as that most Feta cheese was consumed in Greece (it is unclear how this can be relevant to whether the mark is generic), the judgement cannot now be appealed further and "feta" has to be off limits as a cheese brand name unless it is made in Greece to the Greek recipe.