Anglo-Dutch conglomerate Unilever has won a battle at the European Court of Justice, which should pave its way to a victory in the Italian courts to recover a bill for Lit5,330,708 regarding 648 litres of extra virgin olive oil that it had supplied to a customer.

Central Food SpA has been refusing to pay and had demanded that Unilever Italia removed the oil from its warehouses, because it claims that the consignment had been labelled in a way that broke new Italian national regulations on the marking of products regarding geographic origins.

Unilever countered however, citing the fact that that year – 1998 – the European Commission had told the Italian government not to pass the law, because it clashed with its own labelling proposals. Unilever claimed that this meant the national regulations were null and void and asked the Pretore di Milano, (Magistrate, Milan), to order Central Food SpA to pay up.

The magistrates referred the case to the ECJ to ask it whether the Commission had exceeded its powers. In a ruling, the European court has now backed Brussels, saying: “A national court is required, in civil proceedings between individuals concerning contractual rights and obligations, to refuse to apply a national technical regulation which was adopted during a period of postponement of adoption,” namely that the national court cannot enforce
the Italian law.

It is now expected that the magistrates will order that Unilever’s bill is paid.

By Keith Nuthall, correspondent