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Un-feta-ed joy: Greek cheese makers prevail in trademark case against Denmark

Denmark crumbled for a second time in a cheese battle before the EU’s top court. 

LUXEMBOURG (CN) — Only cheese made in Greece can call itself feta, regardless of where it is sold, the European Court of Justice ruled Thursday, rebuking Copenhagen for continuing to export a brined white cheese labeled “feta” outside of the European Union.

The fight over the term, which Greece successfully classified as a “designation of origin” product in 2002, has driven a wedge between the two countries. Copenhagen has been challenging Athens’ ownership of the word since Greece first applied to protect it in 1996. The fight over the protected status landed before the Luxembourg-based court nearly two decades ago, where Denmark argued that “feta” is a generic term. The northern European country lost in 2005 and, since then, any feta-like cheese produced in Denmark and sold in the European Union must use another name. 

Denmark nevertheless continued to use the term “feta” on cheese it exported outside of the EU, leading Brussels to file a complaint before the court. Copenhagen argued that the 1992 regulation responsible for creating the “protected designation of origin” benchmark only covered products sold in the European Union, not those exported to third-party countries. 

The court’s Fifth Chamber shredded Denmark's arguments, concluding Thursday that as an intellectual property right, “designation of origin” applies regardless of where the product is sold. “By failing to prevent or stop such use in its territory, Denmark has failed to fulfill its obligations,” the court said in a statement. An English translation of the decision is not yet available.

Geographical indication protections were created to help preserve local cultural heritage and protect traditional makers or growers of wines, cheese, meats and other foodstuffs. Greece maintains several “designation of origin” products, including the kalamata olive, which is named for the southern city of Kalamata, and 10 other types of cheese. Denmark has its own protected cheese, Danablu, often called Danish Blue Cheese, a soft, strongly flavored cow’s milk cheese. 

Feta cheese has been produced in the Eastern Mediterranean since at least the Bronze Age. The first records of feta cheese in Greece date to the 8th century, and Homer describes its making in the Odyssey. It’s considered a point of national pride, and the country produces more than 100,000 tons of feta every year. 

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