A key advisor to the European Court of Justice said last week that certain Greek manufacturers should be given the exclusive right to manufacture feta cheese, Tom Armitage reports.
Damaso Ruiz-Jarabo Colomer, the Luxembourg-based court's advocate general, said that feta is a "traditional" name for the cheese and that it should consequently be afforded the same type of geographical protection as that already given to French Champagne and Italian Parma Ham.
The advice of the advocate general, although not legally binding, usually influences the outcome of around 80 per cent of cases. The full court, however, has warned that it could take until autumn to deliver its final verdict.
Germany, France and Denmark have each argued that the term feta is a generic term referring to a soft, crumbly cheese, is not specific to a certain geographical region and furthermore, that Greece, which currently produces 80,000 tonnes of the product each year, should not have its monopoly status upheld.
Collectively, these three countries supply the EU with 100,000 tonnes of feta per year - worth an estimated €500 million, as well as accounting for around half the region's annual consumption volume.
Greece, however, counteracts these claims, and maintains that it has produced the cheese since ancient times. It has also alleged that a number of non-Greek producers use Greek names and imagery on their feta packaging.
"Feta is linked with a large part of Greece, historically and at the present time. The size of area from which it originates is irrelevant, the decisive factor being that it meets certain conditions which individualize the product," the Court said in a statement last week.
"Advocate General Ruiz-Jarabo proposes that the Court of Justice dismiss the actions brought by Germany and Denmark," it added.
Greece remains the largest feta-producing region in the EU, with an annual output of around 115,000 tons.
Somewhat ironically, however, Denmark manufactures 30,000 tons of feta through Danish-Swedish dairy co-operative Arla Foods, which is mainly sold to the Greek export market to satisfy a shortfall in supply.
An unfavourable verdict from the EU could cost it €125 million in exports and a number of European dairy associations have already warned that this could encourage a number of retaliatory identity protection applications (protected designation of origin or PDO) from other nations.
The Danish Dairy Board, Denmark's leading dairy association , called last week's verdict "biased" and "extremely political".
Greece has, since 1994, campaigned for geographical protection for feta, 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 that 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.