Parma drama brings a slice of life to court

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Italian Parma ham, the most expensive product to come from a pig, was at the centre of a High Court battle yesterday over the vexed question of whether the traditional antipasto may legitimately be sliced in Wiltshire.

The Parma Ham Consortium, which represents Italian producers, is seeking an injunction to prevent the Asda supermarket chain from selling its cut- price meat, on the grounds that is sliced and packaged in Chippenham rather than in its Italian area of origin.

According to Italian law, the ham must be fully prepared for sale in the Parma region, a narrow area of northern Italy between the Taro and Baganza rivers, under the supervision of the Parma Ham Consortium.

Lawyers for Asda, though, argued that since the law had not been incorporated into EU legislation, it was not enforceable in Britain. The retailer described the case as a "barmy High Court Parma drama".

Deputy Judge Lawrence Collins QC was told that the supermarket, which undercuts its nearest rival by 78p per gram, imports legs of ham which have been produced from Parma pigs according to the traditional method, by Fiorricci, one of the largest companies and a member of the Consortium.

The only difference between Asda's product and that of other British retailers was that it was prepared for sale here after being imported from Italy, the court heard.

Steven Cain, the company's marketing director, said: "To suggest that this ham is inferior because it is sliced and packed in the UK must be a joke. Whether we slice our ham in Parma, Preston, Peterborough or Perth is completely irrelevant."

Mr Cain said the Consortium's argument amounted to saying that Scottish beef ceased to be Scottish if it was sliced in Southampton, or that the origin of Jersey potatoes altered if they were boiled in Blackpool.

Parma ham, which has a distinctive sweet taste, comes from pigs bred in the area where Parmesan cheese was originally produced. They are fed mainly on whey.

The case, which continues today, is the latest in which legal action has been taken to protect the production methods or names of gastronomic delicacies.

Last year, the Scotch Whisky Association sued a distillery on the Isle of Man, claiming that the liquor it produced -- called Manx Whisky - was not the genuine article because it was colourless, an effect achieved by distilling it after it had matured.

The Scotch whisky industry has also taken action against producers in Japan, Taiwan and France, anxious to protect a name that is worth pounds 2.3bn a year in exports.

In Spain, a series of lawsuits has led to a strict definition of exactly who can give the name sherry to their fortified wine.

Producers in the Champagne region of France, meanwhile, have successfully prevented makers of sparkling wines from using the word champagne on their labels. It has launched more than 60 actions in England alone.

Even a Surrey vineyard that made non-alcoholic elderflower "champagne", a traditional country drink, felt the wrath of the mighty French industry, which took the family firm all the way to the Court of Appeal before securing victory.

A couple of years ago, Coca-Cola forced Sainsbury's to change the labelling on its own-brand cola, on the grounds that it was too similar to the original. Sainsbury's also bowed to pressure to change the appearance of its own- brand Full Roast coffee jars after complaints from Nestle about their similarity to Nescafe.

Tesco, too, has been the subject of complaints, from Kellogg's about the supermarket's similarly-packaged own-label cornflakes and about a low-fat spread called Unbelievable, which it brought out after Unilever launched a new spread called I Can't Believe It's Not Butter.

There was heated discussion in 1991 about whether the Jaffa Cake should more properly be classified as a biscuit. Customs and Excise officers took the manufacturers, United Biscuits, to court, arguing that, as a biscuit, the Jaffa Cake should attract VAT. But the judge said he was not convinced that it was not a cake, so it continues to be zero-rated.