Court of Justice bans cheaper version of Parmesan in victory for cheese purists

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The Independent Online

The long-running legal battle over what can be sold as "Parmesan" cheese ended in victory for the purists yesterday when Europe's highest court ruled that makers of a cheaper competing product should be barred from using the trademark.

The long-running legal battle over what can be sold as "Parmesan" cheese ended in victory for the purists yesterday when Europe's highest court ruled that makers of a cheaper competing product should be barred from using the trademark.

The European Court of Justice decided that, even though a cheese comes from the same geographical region, it cannot be sold as "Parmesan" if it does not meet agreed standards.

Yesterday's ruling has implications for a host of other products and strikes a blow against what Italy and other countries have branded agro piracy – when well-known products such as Parma ham have to compete against cheaper imitations.

The cheese at the centre of the latest legal battle, Parmigiano Reggiano (or Parmesan), is hard-textured and sharply flavoured. Parmesan producers registered the Italian name with the European Union in 1996 as a so-called Protected Designation of Origin. But some cheese makers continued to sell a dried mixture of grated cheese under the English name "Parmesan" although it did not meet the formal standards.

In 1999, after a complaint from the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano, which owns the cheese trademark, Italian authorities raided Nuova Castelli and charged it with selling a product with a misleading label.

Its dried, grated and pasteurised cheese was sold in powder form for export and supplied mainly to the French market. The Italian firm argued in its defence that the product was labelled simply "Parmesan" and was intended for export only. The Tribunale di Parma referred the case to the European court where, as well as Italy, five countries – Germany, Greece, Austria, France and Portugal – submitted observations. The court rejected an objection from Germany that "Parmesan" was a generic term.

It also ruled that, once a member state has applied for registration of a name as a Protected Designation of Origin, products that do not comply with its specification cannot be legally marketed in that state or any other EU country.

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