Greece should have the exclusive right to call its cheese feta, the legal adviser to the European Union's top court said on Tuesday, recommending it dismiss a joint appeal by Denmark and Germany.
The Danish dairy industry, which exports about 25,000 tonnes of "feta" worth some 75 million euros ($96 million) every year, reacted strongly to the opinion from a European Court of Justice advocate-general, branding it "extremely biased".
The opinion is a victory for Greece, where the soft white cheese is believed to have been produced for around 6,000 years. Athens has campaigned since 1994 for geographical protection for feta, which is made from a blend of sheep and goats' milk.
The European Commission decided in 2002 that cheese could be called feta only if it was made in certain parts of Greece, giving the product the same kind of protection as Italy's parma ham and French champagne.
Germany and Denmark asked the court to annul that decision, arguing that feta was a generic term for the salty cheese. But Advocate-General Damaso Ruiz-Jarabo Colomer said feta should be regarded as a traditional name originating in Greece.
"Feta is linked with a large part of Greece, historically and at the present time," the Luxembourg-based court said in a statement. "The size of area from which it originates is irrelevant, the decisive factor being that it meets certain conditions which individualize the product.
"Advocate General Ruiz-Jarabo proposes that the Court of Justice dismiss the actions brought by Germany and Denmark."
The legal adviser's opinion is not binding, but is followed by the court in some 80 percent of rulings.
Tuesday's advice drew a negative response from Danish dairy producers, whom a negative ruling by the court would bar from selling their cheese as feta inside the 25-nation bloc, which currently accounts for about half of exports.
"The opinion he (the advocate-general) has made appears to be extremely biased and it is difficult to distinguish it from a party intervention," said Hans Bender, director of the Danish Dairy Board's office in Brussels.
"He has managed to completely disregard the arguments put forward by the Danish and German governments. We still need to scrutinize the statement ... (but) it seems extremely political."