Feta labelling row reaches European high court

Related tags European union

A legal action brought by a northern English cheese producer
against the European Commission over the right to use the label
feta on its products has finally reached the European Court of
Justice - the UK, however, has declined to send an official legal
representative, possibly pre-empting an unfavourable outcome,
Tom Armitage reports.

In 2002 the European Commission (EC) ruled that Greek feta cheese should be afforded the same type of identity protection (protected designation of origin or PDO) as products such as French Champagne and Italian Parma ham.

Consequently, this ruling meant that the label feta must only be used on products that originate from certain regions of Greece, which have also adhered to strict EC production specifications.

But Shepherd's Purse Cheeses, a Yorkshire-based manufacturer of blue cheeses, has since lodged an appeal with the European Court of Justice, claiming that the production of feta cheese, contrary to Greek claims, is not specific to a certain geographical region and that it has in fact been producing Yorkshire feta for a number of years.

But despite repeated calls from UK governmental organisations including DEFRA (the UK's department for farming and rural affairs) to repeal the decision, the UK has declined to provide official legal representation.

Conversely, legal representatives for the Danish and German governments (two of Europe's largest feta cheese manufacturers) have pledged to try and overturn the EC's decision - although a spokesperson for the European Court of Justice warned that a verdict would not be delivered until this coming autumn.

Greece is still by far the largest feta-producing region in the EU, manufacturing an estimated 115,000 tons per year (mainly for domestic consumption) - although somewhat ironically, Denmark manufactures 30,000 tons of feta, which is mainly sold to the Greek export market to satisfy a shortfall in supply.

Dairy associations have already voiced concerns that a favourable ruling for the Greeks could encourage a number of similar retaliatory PDO applications from other nations. If French Brie, for instance, was successfully awarded a PDO, European dairy producers could end up paying millions for the subsequent rebranding and reformulation of their products.

For Shepherd's Purse Cheeses alone, the sole remaining feta cheese producer in England, the ruling could potentially lead to tens of thousands of pounds in lost earnings - as well force it to stump up considerable costs associated with removing the feta label from its products.

The Shepherd's Purse feta product line, which uses 100 per cent ewe's milk, was originally established as an alternative dairy product for lactose intolerance sufferers and has since gone on to secure lucrative distribution deals with leading UK multiple retailers Tesco and Sainsbury's.

Since 1994 Greece has campaigned for geographical protection for the soft white cheese, although had its original attempts to establish a PDO quashed by the European courts in 1999 on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence to prove the product was inherently Greek.

A few years later, however, Greek feta campaigners provided conclusive data to the EC, showing consumers did in fact overwhelmingly associate feta with Greece and that products elsewhere were mainly made from cow's milk, using different production techniques.

Following the revised court ruling in 2002, the EC warned that fines would be imposed for "those who do not respect"​ the feta production specifications, in addition to ordering non-Greek feta producers to either change the labelling of their products or stop production.

The EC decided to give companies which were producing and selling feta prior to 24 July 1987 up to five years to conform to the new regulations, while companies which started manufacturing after this date were immediately forced to cease their feta manufacturing operations.

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