Feta accompli: Denmark loses Greek cheese fight at top EU court

Denmark’s legal defense crumbled at the EU’s top court, in the latest instalment of a Greek epic that has forced the EU’s top legal minds to think hard about the nature of cheese.

The Court of Justice of the European Union Thursday ruled that Denmark was breaking the law by allowing its cheesemakers to sell a cheese labeled “feta” outside the bloc. Feta has a strict legal definition under EU law and can only be marketed as such if it is produced in parts of Greece in keeping with an exhaustive traditional recipe with ancient roots.

The European Commission launched the legal battle against Copenhagen in 2019, supported by Greece and Cyprus, arguing that Denmark was breaking EU law by failing to stop its dairies selling counterfeit feta abroad.

Copenhagen did not deny that it was selling so-called feta around the world but instead its argument hinged on a claim that the EU’s geographical indication rules didn’t cover exports. However, the court found that they do. The Commission’s lawyers argued that, by failing to act, the Danish government was jeopardizing Greek food producers’ right to a fair income and undermining the EU’s stance in talks with trading partners where it negotiates to win lucrative protections for EU food and drinks.

The court’s advocate general in March also sided with the Commission and said the latest showdown should be taught to students of EU law as the fourth part of a long-running “saga” over feta.

The legal cheese Odyssey began more than two decades ago when countries like Denmark, France and Germany tried to thwart the EU’s plans to give feta intellectual property protections. Greece eventually won when the European Commission found it was unique to Greece and codified it as a type of geographical indication called a “protected designation of origin” in 2002. Denmark must now immediately comply with the court’s ruling.