Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Parmesan in Cans No More!

On February 26, the European Court of Justice mandated that "Parmesan" can no longer be tossed around by any old cheese producer. We've grappled with the "Parmesan"/"Parmigiano-Reggiano" distinction at Murray's for some time. It drives us nuts that any junky old reconstituted milk powder can be tossed in a shelf-stable can with some salt and called "Parmesan." That stuff bears no resemblance to the glorious nuance and complexity of the real deal. Parmigiano-Reggiano has so much variety that we carry three at any given time: Parmigiano-Reggiano made by cooperatives, Parmigiano-Reggiano Bonati made by a single family producer, and Parmigiano-Reggiano Vacche Rosse, made with the milk of the nearly extinct red cow. But, let's be frank, Parmigiano-Reggiano is a mouthful, not just of good cheese. It's long and hard to say, and most Americans fall back on the shorter, more familiar "Parmesan." Personally, I shorten it to "Parm" most of the time.
Until now, "Parmesan" could mean anything, but this ruling states that only cheeses bearing the protected denomination of origin (PDO) "Parmigiano-Reggiano" can be sold under the denomination "Parmesan." This is good news for us, because we don't have to redo all our signage. For example, we carry Sartori Stravecchio, which we love for its compulsively caramel, sweet, approachable flavor. Sartori calls it Stravecchio Parmesan, but we stuck to our guns. It's NOT Parmesan, it's pasteurized, the texture is completely different (chewier and younger) and the flavor, while butterscotchy and wonderful, has none of the almondine austerity of the Italian King.
So: score one for helping consumers understand the distinctions in their food, and why hard, aged, cooked, grana-style, cows' milk cheese is not equivalent to Parmigiano-Reggiano. Now, what can we hope for on free-range versus natural versus vegetarian versus cage-free eggs? Whew.
I've pasted the full announcement from the European Court below.
Rome, 26 February 2008.
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) published today a very clear ruling: only cheeses bearing the protected denomination of origin (PDO) 'Parmigiano-Reggiano' can be sold under the denomination 'Parmesan'.
"This judgment is a clear victory for the producers of 'Parmigiano-Reggiano' and the entire sector which includes 20 000 operators and represents a turnover of €1.5 billion. This ruling will put an end to the activities of counterfeiters whose use of the name 'Parmesan' during the last years has had a very negative impact on both the economy of the sector and the image of our unique cheese. This is also a victory for consumers to which we offer strong guarantees of traceability and who will not be facing anymore misleading denominations on the market", stressed Giuseppe Alai, the President of the Consorzio of the Parmigiano-Reggiano.
The publication of the judgement of the Court of Justice comes nearly 3 years after the launch of the infringement proceeding by the European Commission against Germany (21st March 2005). "We are very grateful to all the people who gave their support to us on this case, in particularly to the European Commission which strongly defended the protection of the Parmigiano-Reggiano during all these years. It is an important precedent, not only for the producers of Parmigiano-Reggiano, but also for all the producers of products with geographical indication (DPO and PGI) protected in the European Union who often face abuses on the worldwide markets", declared Leo Bertozzi, the Director of the Consorzio.
The judgment draws on the main arguments of the opinion given in June 2007 by the Advocate General of the Court of Justice. The ECJ dismisses the action for noncompliance against Germany because the Commission did not establish that the German law does not protect sufficiently the PGO 'Parmigiano Reggiano'. By doing so, the Court questions one of the milestones of the European protection system of Geographical Indications (GIs), the fact that Member states must intervene to stop the abusive use of protected GIs (the so-called ex officio protection).
"We take note of the Court's interpretation on the effects of the protection granted at the EU level. The Consorzio challenged German producers before German courts which were waiting for this interpretation of the European Court of Justice to rule on the dispute. Now that things are clear, the Consorzio will obtain the protection of "parmesan" in Germany. However, the ex officio protection is a fundamental element of the GI system, in particular for small producers that do not usually have the means to defend their rights. This aspect must be part of the current reflection on the future of European system on Geographical indications."