Yorkshire group to fight on over feta denomination

Related tags Feta

While the Greeks may be rejoicing that the EU has finally granted
PDO status to their feta cheese, producers elsewhere in the Union
are preparing to fight the decision - including one small producer
in the north of England.

The news last week that the European Union has granted protected denomination of origin (PDO) status to Greek feta cheese was given a great deal of publicity, with most people - including this site - highlighting the fact that the decision will be a blow for Denmark, which produces large quantities of cheese which it will now no longer be able to sell as 'feta'.

But the Danes are not the only producers likely to suffer as a result of the ruling. One UK company, Shepherds Purse​, has been making Yorkshire 'feta' for many years and is one of the most vociferous opponents of the current changes

The company has specialised in producing cheeses from ewe's milk from the outset, catering for the large number of consumers who were allergic to traditional dairy products made from cow's milk.

"Our company has been making Yorkshire feta from 100 per cent ewe's milk under that name since 1987 and we have been attempting to bring some realism into the issue at hand,"​ the company's managing director David Moran told Food and Drink Europe.com​.

He said that the decision to grant PDO status to Greek feta was a "a classic example of bureaucratic maneouvring which has allowed the Greeks to hijack a product name which was not theirs in the first place"​.

Feta, he explained, is not a place-related name such as parmesan or Wensleydale, but rather the name used to describe the Mediterranean (not specifically Greek) cheese which has been made across the continent for many centuries. "The name is either French or Italian in origin, and the cheese has probably been made in this country [the UK] since the early Middle Ages with the recipes being brought in by French monks."

The Greeks have been trying to obtain PDO status for feta for many years, and their initial attempt to do so in 1999 was blocked by the EU, which said that there was not enough evidence to show that feta was a uniquely Greek product.

Moran explained that the opponents of the feta registration at that time, including his company, used exactly the same arguments to convince the Commission as they did this time - but this time they were unsuccessful. "This appears to underline the fact that the result is due to the 'system' rather than the reasons,"​ he said.

Moran said that there were many discrepancies in Greece's claims about feta and the state of the market. If Greek feta is the one and only, how is it that domestic demand in Greece has been met by imports from France and Denmark for many years, he said. "Is this imported cheese sold as feta in Greece itself? If not, who is going to bother them and insist that they follow the letter of the law and sell the imported product under an entirely different name?"

Although Greece has finally got the victory it has been seeking for so many years, Moran said that the fight to overturn the ruling would go on. "We are not a big company but having spent over 15 years establishing quality Yorkshire feta in the UK market. The loss of our second best product line will have more than a passing impact on our business.

"We have sought the help of DEFRA [the UK Department of Agriculture] and all our interested MPs and MEPs - Anne Mackintosh, who is our MP, and Edward McMillan-Scott our Euro MP have been particularly active. But while the UK government agrees that the PDO is not warranted, and has protested in this and the original instance, it is not likely to appeal on our behalf as it does not think an appeal will get anywhere."

He continued: "There was some talk that the Danes and the French may appeal and would receive the UK's support. The problem then becomes one of time. We understand that for those UK producers (and there are only another one or two) who cannot prove that they were producing and selling feta prior to 24 July 1987, it is 'instant cut-off' - ie they will have to stop making feta cheese immediately.

"If you have the proof, you may have five years grace to withdraw the product. But that creates all sorts of problems in itself - how many businesses retain records for that long anyway, and how many small businesses are still around in the original form?"

While Moran and his colleagues will continue to resist the changes for as long as possible, he stressed that Shepherds Purse's priorities had to be the growth of the business. "We recognise that in the grand scheme of all things that matter to the EU, we are not really of consequence. What people need to understand is that the current PDO rules and procedures are not foolproof, and decisions can be taken simply because there is insufficient interest in an initial proposition to raise a vote one way or another. This allows another committee to take a decision based upon its own judgement, and that then becomes virtually irrefutable."

Moran, and others, will clearly be watching with interest to see whether action already being taken by producers in Denmark and France - who have vowed to take the case to the European Court of Justice - has any effect, but with their most compelling arguments already ignored by the Commission, the outcome is at best uncertain.

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