Chobani’s UK ambitions last week appeared to turn sour after a court ruled the largest yoghurt brand in the US could not label its products as ‘Greek yoghurt’ on this side of the Atlantic. Industry watchers believe the ruling will have little impact on how UK consumers view the brand. However, the case highlights an important legal grey area over the question of provenance – with Greek yoghurt yet to secure EU protected status. Michelle Russell reports.

Chobani’s failure to win a court case in the UK over the labelling of its yoghurts as Greek resulted in an injunction against the firm last week. The US firm, which has grown to become the top-selling yoghurt business across the pond in just over five years, was banned from selling its products as Greek yoghurt in the UK.

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The ruling raises questions of provenance. Does it matter to consumers where Greek yoghurt is made? Chobani launched its ‘Greek yoghurt’ in the UK last autumn, exporting products made in New York state across the Atlantic.

Last week, Mr Justice Briggs issued a permanent injunction against Chobani. The complainant, the Greek yoghurt firm Fage, succeeded in its bid to “restrain Chobani from passing off its American-made yoghurt in England and Wales under the description Greek yoghurt”.

Fage, which produces Total Greek yoghurt, had claimed buyers of “thick and creamy” yoghurt generally believed Greek yoghurt came from Greece. It argued it mattered to consumers that Greek yoghurt was made in Greece. By contrast, Chobani’s claimed Greek yoghurt denoted “no clearly identified distinctive class” in the minds of the yoghurt buying public.

Despite the ruling, Chobani has stood by its claim that it is the straining process and not the country of origin that denotes whether a yoghurt should be labelled as Greek.

Hamish Renton, managing director of Hamish Renton Associates, agrees with Chobani to a certain degree and questions whether it matters how a product is labelled. 

“As a consumer, where do you place your trust? Is it in the product description on the pack or is it in the Chobani brand? I’d argue that if you’ve bought the brand before, you like it, you trust it,” Renton says. “Does it matter? Greek, Greek-style, Greek-strained.”

Lauren Bandy, an ingredients analyst at Euromonitor International, offers a similar view. She believes the ruling will have little bearing on how consumers view Greek or Greek-style yoghurts.

“The majority of Greek-style yoghurts are labelled as just that: ‘Greek-style’,” she says. “Muller Light, [Danone‘s] Activia, Yeo Valley and private label all have ‘Greek-style’ ranges and I think the consumer is unlikely to notice the difference,” she tells just-food.

Bandy cautions the ruling could come as somewhat of a blow to Chobani given it has yet to establish itself as a recognised brand in the country.

“Greek-style yoghurt is a crowded segment of the market and only being launched in the second half of 2012 means that Chobani is yet to really establish itself,” she says.

Nonetheless, Bandy says the injunction is unlikely to affect sales in the long term. “The most likely thing Chobani will do will be to re-label their product to ‘Greek-style’, although that is just speculation. The ruling won’t change the contents of the product – the yoghurt itself – but refers to the labelling. Consumers who have tried and enjoyed Chobani are unlikely to be put off, or perhaps even notice, the relabelling.”

She adds: “Chobani is marketed as being not only low in fat, but also high in protein. High-protein diets have moved away from being the province of the fitness crazed to being embraced by the mainstream consumer and are popular with those looking to maintain or lose weight or lead a healthy lifestyle. Greek-style yoghurts are perceived to be naturally high in protein and indulgent at the same time, driving popularity.”

Despite its relative newness to the UK, Chobani does appear unfazed by the injunction. A spokesperson for the company told just-food it has traded in the UK as Chobani strained yoghurt since December and will continue to do so. The firm did not comment on whether a relaunch was in the pipeline.

The Chobani case in the UK does pose wider questions of provenance when looked at in an EU context. The EU has tighter laws on provenance than in Chobani’s home market of the US. While certain products like Jersey Royal potatoes and Cornish pastys have Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) statuses respectively, Greek yoghurt is not currently covered by any EU food mark.

The fact that other manufacturers label their product as Greek-style suggests there is already a degree of self-regulation in the industry, but could there be wider ramifications for the category stemming from the Chobani case in the form of EU regulation?

Renton believes there should be EU regulation of some sort. He puts forward an “intermediary” regulation, which takes into account either origin or the way in which the item is produced.

“The EU is the only body that can credibly rule on this,” he says. “There really should be a PDO-type mark whereby effectively, products that have a degree of provenance, either about origin or a specific process, are able to be labelled. For example, where a PDO doesn’t exist but there is a recognised [manufacturing] process, in some way that needs to be recognised. There has to be an intermediate category. That would be sensible.”

Renton suggests, however, that securing protected origin status for Greek yoghurt could prove difficult, and not as simple as more geographically-defined products like Champagne. He points out that Greek yoghurt covers a country rather than a particular region.

“The issue with Greek yoghurt is that you’re talking about a nation. If you talk about Champagne or Seville oranges, you’re talking about a much tighter defined geography. Greece is a massive place and there are very different ways of making Greek yoghurt within the country itself. If Greek yoghurt were to have PDO status then it should be about provenance or process.”

And Chobani was not the first to be rebuked for its labelling of Greek yoghurt in the UK. Danone was reportedly slapped with an interim injunction by the UK high court last month over the labelling of its Danio ‘Greek yoghurt’ and is awaiting a final ruling. A second yoghurt line launched last year in the UK by Danone under the Oykos brand is, however, labelled as ‘Greek-style’.

Provenance, particularly in the EU, can be fiercely guarded, particularly as brands battle for an edge.