updated 6/28/2007 4:12:38 PM ET 2007-06-28T20:12:38

Parmesan or Parmigiano? The difference is lost on most consumers — as long as lots of it is grated on some al dente pasta. At the European Union’s highest court, however, food is politics — and big business.

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An adviser to the European Court of Justice said Thursday that Germany did not have to prosecute cheese producers who market some hard cheeses as “Parmesan,” even if it does not originate from Italy’s fabled countryside around the city of Parma.

On the other hand, the same adviser said that Germany had failed to prove that Parmesan is a generic term different from the already-protected “Parmigiano Reggiano” wording.

It sets up a thrilling finale when the full Court of Justice will finally rule later this year on whether “Parmesan” can only be made by northern Italians or any cheesemaker in Europe.

At stake is gustatory nationalism that goes to the core of Italy’s heart and stomach. On the other hand, it has an immediate effect on the pocketbooks of dairy giants in countries like Germany and Denmark.

Similar disputes are played out in national courts or even at the World Trade Organization, when it comes to cheeses such as Swiss Emmental or Greek feta.

While one side claims protection of a cultural heritage, the other calls it plain economic protectionism.

“The southern European member states want to use this regulation to turn back the time and they want to protect designations that have clearly become generic,” said Joerg Rieke, the managing director of the German Milchindustrie dairy board. Since Germany produces some 10,000 tons of “Parmesan” a year, the economic factor is clear.

The Danes, one of the main parties in the fabled feta issue, support Germany in the court case and want more products that can be produced anywhere while using a name which they claim has become so common that its origins are no longer essential.

“Slowly, you start protecting everything. Where will it end?” asked Kasper Thormod, a consultant with the Danish dairy board. “If we are good at producing a product, it should be to the benefit of all.”

Those are fighting words in the green pastures around Parma and even in Rome’s parliament. While some claim it is all in the production method, others cherish the idea that a certain patch of land can add an almost mythical value to a product.

The Italian agricultural lobby Coldiretti said one out of every four Italian products sold abroad are imitations — representing $22.5 billion in sales, or about one third the value of knockoffs of all Italian products.

Parmigiano Reggiano and the very similar Grana Padano are the two most imitated Italian products in the world, the lobby said, sold as Parmesao in Brazil, Regianito in Argentina, parmeson in China and Parmesan in North America.

It noted that only 2 percent of “Italian” cheese consumed in the United States is actually made in Italy.

Italy has been pushing for labels on all products sold in the EU — everything from clothes to furniture to food, in order to protect its industries. Germany has been one of the primary opponents.

Thursday’s advice comes after the landmark ruling almost two years ago when the same court finally settled the fate of feta cheese, decreeing it a traditional Greek product deserving protection throughout the 27-nation EU, snubbing industrial producers elsewhere in Europe.

And Thursday too, those seeking regional protection cried victory after the court adviser said Germany failed to prove “Parmesan” had become generic without the strict Italian link.

“The recommendation by the attorney general leaves no doubt: The term ’Parmesan’ is not generic and constitutes an expression of the provenance of Parmigiano-Reggiano,” the Parmigiano-Reggiano consortium said in a statement.

The German dairy board sees other forces at work too.

“In the past, it was a political issue and it will be a political issue in the future too,” Rieke said.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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