The Paris Court of Appeal ruled that the appearance of the French semi-soft cheese Morbier - which features a horizontal black line of edible ash - is ‘sufficiently specific’ to be protected under the PDO.
The ruling mirrors a prior European Court of Justice (ECJ) decision, which read that a PDO should not only protect the name of a product but its appearance as well, setting a precedent that would allow producers of PDO cheese to take action against competitors who marketed products that were visually similar but had non-PDO names.
In the case of Morbier, only cheese producers based in France’s Jura mountains can manufacture and sell the ash-striped semi soft cheese under the PDO. Others, who operate outside the specific geographical area, cannot produce any versions that mimic the cheese's specific appearance, even if these products are sold under another name.
How the dispute went down
The recent judgement is the latest in a long dispute between France’s Interprofessional Syndicate for the Defense of Morbier Cheese and Société Fromagère du Livradois SAS.
In 2013, the association sued the company arguing that the manufacturer sold cheese that featured Morbier’s trademark black horizontal stripe despite not being based in the PDO area. This created unfair competition, the body argued, since consumers could be led to believe they were buying the authentic cheese due to its appearance.
But the court of first instance decided the PDO only covered the name, not the appearance of the product – and the cheese sold by Société Fromagère du Livradois SAS was not sold as ‘Morbier’.
This decision was then appealed by the association before the Court de Cassation, which in turn called on the ECJ to interpret Article 13 of two regulations that dictate how EU agricultural products are protected and how their unique traits are communicated to consumers.
The ECJ ruled that producers outside the PDO area must not recreate ‘the shape or appearance characterising a product covered by a registered name where that reproduction is liable to lead the consumer to believe that the product in question is covered by that registered name’.
Last week, the Paris Court of Appeal handed down a decision that a PDO would protect the appearance as well as the name of a product, in a win for the Syndicate.
Speaking to BFMTV.com after the ruling, the Syndicate’s president Joël Alpy commented: “This is the first time that we have activated this article 13 of the European regulation which stipulates that the PDO protects the name but also a particular characteristic of a product which can mislead the consumer during his act of purchase.
“Tomorrow, there will only be a product with this dark trait, this visual trait, which is a particular characteristic of our Morbier. It is unique, it is inimitable, it is really our history and it is our cheese.”
Morbier is named after the village of Morbier in Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, where the cheese was first produced in.
The cheesemaking process originally utilized leftover curd from comté production to produce the first cheese layer, onto which a thin layer of ash was spread to act as a preservative; the following morning, another layer of curd was added on top.
Today, the black ash line is replaced by edible vegetable ash.