Hard cheese: EU court scolds Denmark over feta labels in win for Greece

Twenty years after feta cheese was recognised as exclusively Greek, the EU’s highest court has gone one step further and announced that Denmark would be breaking the law if it continued to allow dairies to sell counterfeit feta outside the bloc.

In Athens, the news elicited immediate glee. “This is a wonderful day for authentic feta cheese,” said Christos Apostolopoulos, who heads the Association of Greek Dairy Industries, which produces 80% of the country’s stock. “We are very pleased and delighted. Our complaints have finally been heard.”

Greece has long argued that it has history on its side. The crumbly white cheese, most commonly a mixture of sheep and goat’s milk, was first recorded in the eighth century BC and was referenced by Homer in the Odyssey. Aristotle is said to have delighted in its distinctive taste and texture.

A staple of the ancient world, it has been an integral part of Hellenic cuisine ever since, topping traditional Greek salads and filling traditional Greek pastries, not least the cheese and spinach pies that line the shelves of most bakeries. No tavern would be worth its salt, or brine, if feta wasn’t on its menu.

“There is almost no table [of patrons] that doesn’t order it,” said Ioannis Filokostas, president of the union of restaurateurs in Thessaloniki, Greece’s northern metropolis. “The European court’s logic was totally right. History has proved that it is clearly a Greek product and for us this is clearly a good decision. Why should Denmark rip off our product?”

Prior to the ruling, Athens’ agriculture ministry had described the tangy cheese as an iconic creation of the country.

Feta was awarded the appellation of being a designated Greek product with a protected designation of origin, or PDO, by the EU executive in 2002 – a move that many had thought would give it legal security among member states.

But neither that, nor outrage in Greece, has stopped Denmark exporting its own “feta” to non-EU territories, with Copenhagen countering that the export ban was tantamount to an obstacle to trade.

In 2019 the dispute deepened after the commission decided to take the case to the European court of justice, the bloc’s top tribunal, with the support of Athens and Nicosia.

Three years later, judges at the Luxembourg-based court delivered their verdict. On Thursday they pronounced that with its stance, Denmark was hindering not only the right of Greek producers to a fair income, but the EU’s own position in talks with trading partners. “By failing to stop the use of the designation ‘feta’ for cheese intended for export to third countries, Denmark has failed to fulfil its obligations under EU law,” they said.

Earlier this year the court had given a foretaste of Thursday’s decision when its advocate general, Tamara Capeta, counselled that Denmark was in breach of European law by labelling white cheese exports “feta”.

“Feta was registered as a protected designation of origin (PDO) in 2002,” Capeta was quoted as saying in March. “Since then, the name ‘feta’ can be used only for cheese originating in the specified geographical area in Greece and complying with the relevant production specification.”

An estimated 30,000 Greek farmers produce about 130 tons of feta annually, according to data kept by the Association of Greek Dairy Industries. “Our organisation accounts for about 95% of our total exports,” Apostolopoulos said. “What Denmark has been doing is a total fraud. The only way its companies can continue selling the product is if they call it ‘white brined cheese’.”

The Danes have marketed their “feta” since 1963, manufacturing the cheese from pasteurised cow’s milk. In Greece, feta is produced either from unpasteurised sheep’s milk or a mixture of sheep and goat’s milk, then curdled with rennet. Greek dairies have spotted Danish imitation feta being sold as far afield as Australia, itself home to a large Greek diaspora. “Their cheese has reached markets across the Middle East, Africa and Australia,” said Apostolopoulos, expressing fears that Danish multinationals would continue making the cheese in production units established outside the EU.

In recent years Greek exports of feta have increased dramatically, and more than 65% of total output is now sold overseas.

“I think we can fulfil some of [those markets’] needs with authentic feta cheese,” noted Apostolopoulos. “It’s very important that we begin bilateral discussions with countries that host these factories to make clear that they are in breach of EU laws if they continue producing fake feta cheese.”