The European Union’s highest court finally settled the fate of feta cheese on Tuesday, decreeing it a traditional Greek product deserving protection throughout the 25-nation bloc in a ruling that went against other European producers.
Germany and Denmark, backed by France and Britain, had challenged the designation of origin for the salty, crumbly cheese and turned it into a gastronomic fight lasting almost two decades and involving lobbyists, the European Commission and, finally, the European Court of Justice.
“The court upholds the name ’feta’ as a protected designation of origin for Greece,” the Luxembourg-based court said in its ruling.
Danish and German producers had hoped to be able to continue producing such cheese and call it feta to maintain the product’s marketability. They argued that what made feta specific was the technique of making it, not the geographical origin.
“Our efforts have been crowned by success. The European Court issued a historic decision, declaring finally and irrevocably that the feta is not for common usage and is exclusively Greek,” a jubilant Greek Agriculture Minister Evangelos Basiakos said.
Danish producers were outraged.
“The ruling is grotesque and political,” said Hans Bender of the Danish Dairy Board. “What will be next? Will the Italians demand that pizza become a protected product that no one can make?”
Name changes, though, will be inevitable.
“Our feta production will continue. However, we will sell under other names,” said Astrid Gade Nielsen, spokeswoman for Arla Foods, a Danish company that produces 25,000 tons of the cheese a year.
EU Farm Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel said the ruling set an example for global trade talks where denominations of origin, including those of wines, are often a point of discussion.
“The ruling sets an important precedent” for defining so-called geographic indicators — a trademark protection issue affecting a host of European foodstuffs in global trade talks. “This is important for the future for international negotiations. This ruling shows that our system works,” Boel said.
When the European Commission gave feta its protected designation of origin in 2002, it argued that natural, geographic and human factors had combined to give the cheese its specific Greek character. It said the extensive grazing of special ewes and goats on Greek terrain gave the cheese its specific aroma and flavor.
“The interplay between the natural factors and the specific human factors, in particular the traditional production method, which requires straining without pressure, has thus given feta cheese its remarkable international reputation,” the court said.
German and Danish producers also have taken the lead in campaigns to have feta declared a generic product in recognition of the fact that production has spread well beyond the cheese’s origin, and took the case to the EU’s highest court.
The court ruled that was not enough to claim the name, arguing several Balkan countries produced such a briny cheese for a long time, but all called it something different.
Three years ago, Denmark exported most of the 30,000 tons of feta it produces each year. Greece made some 115,000 tons of the cheese, mostly for home consumption.