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EU ruling grating to Germans

Court says Parmesan cheese from Italy only

An employee inspects a wheel of cheese branded as Parmesan at a cheese factory in Kissleg, Germany. A ruling by the European Court of Justice means the Germans will have to rename their cheese. An employee inspects a wheel of cheese branded as Parmesan at a cheese factory in Kissleg, Germany. A ruling by the European Court of Justice means the Germans will have to rename their cheese. (Guido Krzikowski/Bloomberg News)
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Associated Press / February 27, 2008

LUXEMBOURG - The European Court of Justice ruled yesterday that only the tasty, crumbly cheese that has been made for some 800 years near the Italian city of Parma can legally be called Parmesan.

In a case dating back to 2003, the court criticized Germany for allowing sales of imitation Parmesan in violation of European Union food-origin rules that reserve the name Parmesan for Italian cheese only.

The case was brought by the European Commission. There was no punishment for Germany, but German producers will now have to change the name of their cheese.

Over the years, the EU has become more active in legally protecting dozens of brand names of foods and drink peculiar to European regions - from Champagne to feta cheese.

In 2005, in a setback for Danish producers, the EU high court said feta can only come from Greece, and imitations cannot use that name.

Germany argued in court that Parmesan was a generic term for a type of hard, crumbly cheese that is often grated over food and cannot claim an Italian uniqueness.

The court disagreed, saying Parmesan was "clearly a translation of 'Parmigiano Reggiano.' "

It added Germany had provided some "quotations from dictionaries and specialist literature" about Parmesan but these shed no light on how "the word Parmesan is perceived by consumers."

In Parma, the producers' alliance Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese Consortium celebrated the ruling as a "victory for all the producers and consumers for whom we created strong quality."

The German Dairy Industry Association said the ruling affected a small number of German companies and complained that Italian producers have for decades exported "cheese of varying origin . . . under the name of Parmesan."

In its judgment, the EU court said it was up to Italy to monitor the illegal use of the Parmesan name in Germany and alert the German authorities of any violations. German officials said that has already happened.

The EU court's judgment is important because national food is not just an emotional issue - it's big business.

The German dairy industry estimates German farmers produce some 10,000 tons of "Parmesan" a year.

The Italian agricultural lobby Coldiretti believes that one out of every four Italian products sold abroad is an imitation - representing $24.7 billion in sales.

Parmigiano Reggiano and the very similar Grana Padano are the two most imitated Italian products in the world. It is sold as Parmesao in Brazil, Regianito in Argentina, Parmeson in China, and Parmesan in North America.

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