Halloumi Makers Score Win in Fight to Protect Cheese Name

(CN) – When you hear BBQLOUMI, don’t you think of halloumi, the white salty cheese from Cyprus?

That’s the problem, Europe’s top court said Thursday in a ruling that sides with Cypriot makers of halloumi cheese who are trying to stop a Bulgarian company from obtaining a European trademark for a cheese it wants to call BBQLOUMI. Halloumi has become popular in barbecuing.

Grilled halloumi cheese. (Wikipedia image via CNS)

The court ruled that BBQLOUMI may be similar enough to the name halloumi, a traditional white cheese from Cyprus, that buyers could be confused into thinking BBQLOUMI products come from Cyprus.

This trademark fight is part of a broader, and politically difficult, campaign by Cyprus to protect its cheese from competitors by getting the European Union 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.

Regardless, Thursday’s ruling from the European Court of Justice was significant for Cyprus and its halloumi sector because it overturns a lower court decision that had cleared the way for BBQLOUMI to be registered as a trademark.

The high court sent the matter back to Europe’s General Court and said it needed to take into consideration whether people might see a BBQLOUMI product and think it is made by halloumi makers in Cyprus.

The case was brought by the Foundation for the Protection of the Traditional Cheese of Cyprus, an association representing halloumi makers.

In 2014, a Sofia, Bulgaria-based cheese company called M.J. Dairies applied to get BBQLOUMI trademarked. Halloumi has been a registered trademark for 20 years.

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.

The General Court found that although the two names are “in part identical and in part similar to some degree” there was “no likelihood of confusion in the mind of the relevant public.”

But the high court said the lower court needed to take into consideration that buyers may be led into believing that cheese labeled as BBQLOUMI is made by halloumi makers.

The ruling said the lower court must 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 ruling 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.”

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.

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(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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