Asda slices open the protected market for Parma ham

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THE COURT of Appeal struck a blow yesterday for the democratisation of high-class food when it ruled that Asda could sell cut-price Parma ham sliced and packaged in this country.

In a move that should be welcomed by all aficionados of prosciutto con melone, the court ruled that the famously jealous Italian association of Parma ham producers had no right to stop the supermarket chain buying the ham in Italy and chopping and labelling the delicacy elsewhere.

"This is a victory not only for Asda, but also for the consumer," an Asda spokesman said. Its policy of buying in bulk in Italy made it possible to sell the ham cheaper than any of its competitors, he said. Asda celebrated by setting up a Parma ham stall outside the court in London and offering samples to passers-by.

The decision overturned what had been a victory for the Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma earlier this year, when the High Court ruled that European Commission rules designed to prevent other producers from cashing in on regional specialities also applied to Asda's case.

In a porcine soundbite, Justin King, Asda's deputy trading director, gloated: "[The consortium's] argument that slicing and packing this ham in the UK makes it in some way less genuine took a real hammering in court."

The decision opens up the possibility of Asda's competitors following suit, leading to a general reduction in the price of a product that sells for about pounds 12 a pound.

The dry-cured, salty ham, hung for up to 12 months, has been produced in the Parma region since Roman times, and strict rules govern the rearing of the pigs and its sale, with the consortium launching dozens of legal actions a year to protect its producers from foreign rivals.

The court refused the consortium leave to appeal to the House of Lords, although it can still apply to the law lords for that right. Given the determination with which the Italian organisation has pursued pretenders from France, Spain, Germany and the United States, such a move cannot be ruled out, although Asda's case is different in that its ham is made and cured in Parma.

But some porcophiles will be unaffected by yesterday's decision. One school of continental gourmet thought holds that Parma ham has become over-commercialised and the real thing is the subtler, nuttier San Daniele ham from the hills of Alto-Adige, near the Austrian border. And for others, prosciutto is ham-fisted in its flavours compared with Spain's jamon serrano - similarly cured but made from pigs fed on acorns instead of Parma's whey.

Disputes Over Names

Other products with controversial names:

Elderflower champagne. Thorncroft Vineyard, a British producer of fizzy, fermented elderflower wine, lost its campaign to label its product Elderflower champagne in 1993 after the French Champagne Producers' Association went to the Court of Appeal.

Sherry. Makers of Bristol Cream and other British "sherries" are no longer allowed to use the name after lawsuits in Spain led to a strict definition of who can put the label on the drink. Sherry is made in the Jerez region of Spain; anything else is fortified wine.

Cheddar cheese. Residents of the Somerset village of Cheddar Gorge were dismayed when in 1996 Brussels said cheddar cheese was so ubiquitous its origin could not be specified.

Haute Provence wine. The wines of the Haute Provence vineyard in South Africa are labelled "Product of South Africa". French winemakers and the European Union this year forced the vineyard to change its name, to Agusta, because its wines might be confused with those produced in France.