The “laughable” decision to allow Greece to register feta cheese could undermine EU moves to seek international recognition for all protected foods at next month’s WTO talks in Hong Kong. Chris Jones reports from Brussels.

Late last month, the European Court of Justice upheld a 2002 decision by the European Commission to grant Protected Denomination of Origin (PDO) status to feta, the salty cheese made from sheep or goats’ milk.

But feta producers in Denmark, who had challenged the Commission’s ruling on the grounds that the name was widely used for cheese produced across the EU, the Middle East and even North America, are refusing to give up the fight and warn that the move sets a dangerous precedent.

“We will not stop fighting this decision,” Hans Bender, the head of the Danish Dairy Federation in Brussels, told just-food. “The most recent court case was brought by the governments of Denmark, Germany and France on behalf of feta makers, but a second case is yet to be heard which has been brought by the cheese producers themselves.”

Bender does not expect victory, however, as he believes that a political deal has been done between the Greek authorities and the European Commission. “I cannot prove it, but it seems fairly obvious to me that some time in the past the Commission agreed to back Greece’s call for feta to be registered as a PDO.”

“When Greece unilaterally decided to ban imports of feta cheese made in Denmark and elsewhere back in the late 1980s, the Commission began infringement proceedings against Athens on the grounds that the feta name was generic, and not specific to Greece. Why has it changed its position?”

British MEP Edward McMillan-Scott, whose Yorkshire constituency includes Shepherd’s Purse Cheeses, the UK’s only feta producer, appears to support Bender’s conspiracy theory.

‘Laughable’ argument

“In 2003 I met Franz Fischler and he agreed with me that the arguments advanced by the Greek government – for example, that the grass in Greece gave the cheese its particular taste – were laughable. Feta is a generic product whose primary taste is the brine in which it is preserved,” Macmillan-Scott said.

But a spokesman for the European Commission told just-food that such claims were “ludicrous” and pointed out that it was Fischler who had backed Greece’s claim. “The Commission does not make these decisions from on high – producers have to come up with a watertight reason why they should have PDO status for their products. There is no question of it being a political decision – the commission is not open to that kind of influence.”

Bender and McMillan-Scott believe that, whatever the reason behind the decision, it could be highly damaging for the credibility of the entire PDO system.

PDO stance at WTO undermined

“The EU is committed to getting its list of PDO products accepted by the WTO, but including feta will seriously undermine its negotiating position,” said McMillan-Scott. “Failure to get Europe’s trading partners to abide by PDO rules will damage not only feta makers but producers of hundreds of other food products with a more justifiable need for protection.”

Bender agreed. “The US makes a lot of feta cheese, and convincing them to stop calling it by that name is going to be very hard. The door is now open for other cheeses such as cheddar or camembert to apply for PDO status,” says Bender. “And why should it stop there? Could we see Britain registering the name bacon, or Italy registering pizza?” he added, only half in jest.

McMillan-Scott has also called on British Prime Minister Tony Blair, current president of the EU, to propose changing the rules for registering PDO products to stop more such “silly decisions” from being taken in the future.
So why has Greece pushed so hard for protection for feta? For McMillan-Scott, it is all about the threat posed by European expansion. “Although Denmark, Germany and France produce feta on an industrial scale, most of their output is not sold in Greece. But Bulgaria, another major producer, sells a lot of feta in Greece, and its EU entry in 2007 would allow it even greater access to other European countries.”

‘Simple xenophobia’

“New agreements between the EU and Mediterranean countries such as Egypt and Tunisia could also increase imports of feta cheese, and Greece is scared of losing its market share. It is simply a matter of xenophobia.”

Bender’s opposition to the feta ruling is now almost a matter of principle, since he believes Greece will not gain much from the move. “Danish feta output has fallen from around 120,000 tonnes a year a decade ago to just 30,000 tonnes because we felt we were too dependent on one product and have shifted production to other cheeses.”

“Furthermore, most of it is known by brand names, rather than feta, so we don’t expect to see any major impact on sales after 2007 when Greece has the sole right to the feta name.”

But there will be a price to pay, he warned. “Greece has little to gain from this ruling, but the EU as a whole has such a lot to lose. The WTO talks will be difficult enough as it is for the EU, but this kind of trade distorting move will only make matters worse.”