The case pits Northern Foods against the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and by extension local producers belonging to the Melton Mowbray Pie Association.
The court battle has evolved as a ground breaking case over the EU'sgeographical indications (GI) system and the problems it can pose formanufacturers.
The case is a result of an application by Defra to the European Commission onbehalf of local producers in the area of Melton Mowbray for their pies to beprotected under the GI system. Defra, as part of a government policy to promotelocal foods, is applying under the GI system for protected geographicalindication (PGI) status for the area.
The EU's rules require that GI approved areas stick to the specificationsoutlined in their applications, including the product's recipe, and keepingproduction and sourcing within a defined geographical area. For PGI products,the geographical link must occur in at least one of the stages of production,processing or preparation a food.
Once approved other producers outside the protected area may not use thename. A successful application would prevent other companies, including NorthernFoods, from making the pies outside of the area specified in the application.
Facing a situation in which it would lose a growing multi-million euro marketfor its Melton Mowbray pies, Northern Foods decided to take the case to court inan effort to bloc the application.
The battle, which has been simmering for over two years, promises to beprolonged. Carol Williams, the company secretary for Northern Foods, vowed totake the case to the EU's courts if the company loses its case in the UK.
"Our pies are very high quality and made to traditional recipes, and we think that is more important than whether or not the factory that makes them is in a completely spurious area of the East Midlands - which is much larger than the immediate area around Melton Mowbray,"she said. "We have fought this challenge all the way on some very clear principles and we will have no compunction about fighting on in Europe."
The company notes that application proposes to designate an area ofproduction covering 1,800 sq. miles, including the town of Melton Mowbray,Leicester, Nottingham and Northampton.
The company claims the designation of the large area is meant to protect onelocal producer with a Melton Mowbray pork pie production site within theproposed area. The producer, Samworth Brothers, holds a 55 per cent shareof the £50m (€74m) UK market for the pies and has factories outside of thetown, including one in Leicester city. .
Northern Foods, which has produced pork pies labelled as "Melton Mowbray"since the 1800s, holds another 25 per cent of the market, while GEO Adams andKerry Foods each hold six per cent.
The Melton Mowbray brand is the fastest growing section of the UK's total £130m pork pie market, Northern Foods claims. The company produces its brand of thepies at plants in Wiltshire and Shropshire, outside the designated area.
"What defines a Melton Mowbray pork pie is its quality, style,ingredients and presentation, not the location of its production," thecompany claims.
However, Matthew O'Callaghan, chairman of the Melton Mowbray Pie Association,disagrees. He says that other pie producers using the name use cured pork intheir recipes, giving the meat a pink look.
Local producers use fresh pork, which means the meat has a gray look. Localproducers also bake their pies free standing, giving it a unique shape. Pieproducers outside the area use a metal hoop to give their pies a standardisedlook.
"Our method also burns off the outside fat, giving the pies a crumblytexture," O'Callaghan told FoodProductionDaily.com. He is a vegetarianand is also a locally elected councillor for Melton Mowbray.
He notes that under the GI system the size of the area does not matter and hebelieves Northern Foods will fail in its application.
"The whole of Greece is a protected area for feta production,"he said. "In the case of Melton Mowbray pies our market share has beeneroded by non-traditional producers."
The association's research indicates that demand for pies with the town'sname is rising at five per cent a year and is commanding a premium price. Hesuggests that Northern Foods could easily switch production to one of thecompany's processing plants in the area and thus keep using the name.
"This is a test case for the survival of British regionalfoods," he said.
Under the GI system, governments must first gain consensus from all producersof a product before submitting an application to the European Commission. Theapplication can then be contested by other countries but not by local companies.The Commission then makes a decision based on the various submissions.
The UK's government actively supports the GI system. In 2003 the Departmentfor Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) hired market consultancy Foodfrom Britain to develop a programme supporting British regional foods anddrinks. The three-year programme began in 2003 and is being funded by anadditional £3m of government money.
Cornish Clotted Cream, Blue Stilton Cheese, Whitstable Oysters, Scotch Beefand Gloucestershire Cider are among the local UK foods that have already gainedGI status. An application for Lincolnshire sausages is underway.
The EU's GI regime was set up to protect local food producers across the blocfrom having their traditional brand names used by processors elsewhere. Thesystem has shut out producers who were using what they thought was a genericname for their products. Since its introduction in 1992 about 700 foods anddrinks have been approved for GI protection, with another 300 applications underconsideration.
About 40 per cent of the bloc's citizens say they are willing to pay a 10 percent premium for specially designated products, according to a Commissionsurvey.
As in the case of feta, GI protection means producers in Denmark and Francewill lose the right at the end of next year to call their cow-milk cheeseproduct manufactured outside of Greece "feta".
The EU wants international recognition for the system and has applied toWorld Trade Organisation to get it ratified. That application is being contestedby the US, which claims the system is nothing but another form of tradeprotection.