After winning a court ruling in their bid to protect their halloumi cheese name from competitors, Cyprus’ cheese makers lost a second round on Wednesday when the European General Court allowed a company to use the name BBQLOUMI.
(CN) — After scoring a court win last year in their fight to protect the name of their cheese, a European court on Wednesday handed Cypriot halloumi cheese makers a setback by approving a Bulgarian company’s bid to market its cheese products as BBQLOUMI.
The European General Court found there is no risk that consumers will confuse BBQLOUMI for halloumi, a white salty cheese from Cyprus. Halloumi has become popular in barbecuing.
Its ruling contradicted a finding last March by the European Court of Justice, which is the European Union’s highest court. Last year, the high court told the General Court to review its previous ruling that permitted the use of the trademark BBQLOUMI.
In 2014, a Sofia, Bulgaria-based cheese company called M.J. Dairies applied to get BBQLOUMI trademarked. Halloumi has been a registered trademark for 21 years and the Bulgarian company’s trademark application was challenged by the Foundation for the Protection of the Traditional Cheese of Cyprus, an association representing halloumi makers.
In overturning the lower court’s decision, the Court of Justice told the General Court to evaluate halloumi as a “collective mark” held by the halloumi association whose members need to distinguish their products from others.
“The likelihood of confusion,” the Court of Justice said, “must be understood as being the risk that the public might believe that the goods or services covered by the earlier trade mark and those covered by the trade mark applied for all originate from members of the association.”
It told the General Court to “determine whether there is a risk that the general public may wrongly believe that the goods or services offered under the BBQLOUMI mark originate from an undertaking affiliated with the association which is the proprietor of the HALLOUMI mark.”
After doing a further review, the General Court again said there was no risk of confusion. The lower court said consumers will be drawn more to the “BBQ” portion of the trademark rather than to the “loumi” element. In other words, the trademark leaves consumers thinking more about barbecue than halloumi cheese, the General Court reasoned. It added putting BBQ in front of “loumi” also helps emphasize the notion of barbecue over that of the cheese.
“Where the public is confronted with the word element making up the mark applied for, its attention will be drawn more to the initial part of that element, in this case ‘bbq’, rather than to the final part ‘loumi,’” the General Court said.
“The low degree of similarity of the signs in question is unlikely to contribute to the existence of a likelihood of confusion, since those signs share the common element ‘loumi’ which is not dominant per se and which, moreover, has weak inherent distinctiveness for a large part of the relevant public who will understand it as a possible reference to halloumi cheese,” the ruling said.
This trademark fight is part of a broader, and politically difficult, campaign by Cyprus to protect its cheese from competitors by getting the EU to give its famed halloumi special status as a geographically protected cheese made only in Cyprus.
The problem is the island of Cyprus has a border running through it dividing Greek Cypriots from Turkish Cypriots, who make their own halloumi called hallim. The Turkish side of the island is under Turkish protection. Turkey is not part of the EU but Cyprus is, and this has complicated the island’s efforts to get halloumi – and hellim – a special designation.
Initially, the European Union Intellectual Property Office, an agency that approves trademarks, ruled BBQLOUMI can be given a trademark and the General Court agreed in 2018. An advocate general to the European Court of Justice also sided with BBQLOUMI and advised the high court to reject the appeal by the Halloumi foundation.
Halloumi is a springy but firm white cheese traditionally made in Cyprus from the milk of cows, sheep and goats. It is eaten in the Mediterranean and the Middle East but also has become very popular around the world. It’s become a favorite in barbecue recipes because the cheese doesn’t melt easily.
Halloumi is often called Cyprus’ “white gold” because of its economic importance. Exports are valued at more than $200 million and about 13,000 Cypriots work in the cheese-making business.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.