Food fight: Manufacturing giant Kraft in court over parmesan cheese trademark

Italian cheese producers have taken their issue with Kraft to court.

Italian cheese producers have taken their issue with Kraft to court. Photo: Getty/Woolworths/TND

Italian producers of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese are challenging food manufacturing giant Kraft’s right to call its containers of dried cheese ‘parmesan’.

Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano Reggiano, a consortium that oversees cheese production from 321 dairies in northern Italy, has an issue with Kraft’s terms for its cheese products.

Kraft ‘parmesan’ is powdered, heavily processed, has a lengthy shelf life and does not require refrigeration, unlike traditional Parmigiano Reggiano.

The consortium is appealing against the Australian Trade Marks Office’s decision to allow Kraft to use the word parmesan, arguing the name will confuse and mislead consumers.

Cheese rules

According to the consortium’s provisions and definitions, items labelled as parmesan must have a specific aroma, flavour, colouration and fat content.

Each wheel must hold a minimum weight of 30 kilograms, even citing specific dimensions for wheel size.

The cheese must also be made from raw, partially skimmed milk from cows that have eaten forage grown in the area of origin.

Under EU and Italian legislation, certified Parmigiano Reggiano is only made in five Italian regions – specifically the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna and Mantua.

Plus, no additives or heat treatments are allowed in the process.

The consortium is appealing against Kraft’s use of the word ‘parmesan’. Photo: Getty

No confusion

Kraft argues that it is free to call its cheese ‘parmesan’, since the word has become a generic term for a style of hard cheese and it has outgrown the consortium’s rigid definition.

From early signs, it appears the court’s ruling may be in Kraft’s favour.

A delegate of the Registrar of Trade Marks said it was highly unlikely that Australian consumers would be confused by Kraft’s use of the word ‘parmesan’.

“It is telling that none … have stated in their evidence that if they saw cheese bearing the [Kraft] trademark that they would think it was Parmigiano Reggiano, from Italy or associated with Italy,” delegate Tracey Berger said in court.

“Australian consumers of cheese, whether ‘informed’ or ‘uninformed’, understand that parmesan has more than one signification.”

Both ‘parmigiano reggiano’ and ‘parmesan’ hold protected status under Italian and European law.

Although ‘parmesan’ is widely used internationally to describe hard cheeses, the use of other protected terms can still land businesses and individuals in hot water.

Protected foods

There are dozens of foods around the world with protected status, ranging from teas to wines, and cheeses to spirits.

There are three types of protection: Protected Geographical Indication (PGI), Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and Traditional Specialities Guaranteed (TSG).

PGI foods hold a specific quality that can be attributed to a particular region, whereas PDO foods are protected based on where they are produced, processed and prepared.

TSG foods, on the other hand, are not necessarily linked to a specific geographical area. Rather, these foods must be of “specific” character and must have “traditional” elements.

Both ‘parmigiano reggiano’ and ‘parmesan’ are PDOs under Italian and European law.

The EU has also engaged with specific countries, including Australia, to negotiate the protection of various product names or terms that originated in EU member nations.

Troubles bubble over

One of France’s main exports, Champagne, is a PDO, causing legal issues for Australian producers of sparkling wines because the term  champagne is protected in Australia.

The French-based Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC) sought legal action back in 2014 to dispute a request by an Australian businesswoman to trademark the moniker ‘Champagne Jayne’.

Jayne Powell, a wine educator, had been using the moniker for 10 years before deciding to make things official.

The CIVC argued that Ms Powell was misleading her customers by promoting her sparkling wines using the term ‘champagne’.

Under its definition, champagne wines are exclusively produced from grapes grown, harvested and made into wine in the Champagne region in France.

Even if brands use the same process to make their booze, it cannot be called champagne for those very reasons.

However, after a five-year legal battle, Ms Powell emerged victorious and successfully trademarked ‘Champagne Jayne’ – with no additional challenges by the CIVC.

Although Ms Powell was successful, the CIVC’s crackdown has had a ripple effect across the alcohol market, with brands using the terms ‘Chandon’ or ‘sparkling’ to make the key distinction.

parmigiano reggiano

If a sparkling wine hasn’t been exclusively made in the region of Champagne in France, it’s technically not a champagne. Photo: Getty

Brexit blues

The UK once had protected status for 41 foods and beverages, including items like Cornish pasties, clotted cream and Scotch whisky.

But when the UK left the EU in 2020, these 41 items were left largely unprotected.

The government moved to recognise protected PGI, PDO and TSG items under a new national scheme.

However, in order for these protections to be recognised in other countries, the UK must negotiate these in trade agreements.

By November 2021, the UK was unable to secure protected status for many iconic goods, such as the Cornish pasty, in Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein.

Under their former PDO status, Cornish pasties had to be produced using ingredients from Cornwall, and baked to a certain recipe and shape.

But the lack of protection meant baked goods could be sold in Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein under the name ‘Cornish pasty’, even though they didn’t meet those requirements.

parmigiano reggiano

Cornwall’s famed Cornish pasty was among the items to lose protected status during the UK’s exit from the European Union. Photo: Getty

The former minister of state for the Department of International Trade, Lord Grimstone of Boscobel, said the government’s trade agreement admittedly fell short.

“You cannot get all that you ask for, of course, when you negotiate these agreements,” Lord Grimstone said.

Beat of their own drum

Many other geographically-named items, such as kalamata olives and feta cheese, are also protected in the EU.

American brands have largely ignored their protection, however, using ‘parmesan’, ‘kalamata’ and ‘feta’ to describe their generic and non-authentic products.

But ironically, the United States has its own geographic protection system to recognise American products, such as Napa Valley wines – suggesting they do acknowledge the importance of geographic protection.

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