UK supermarket chain Asda has won a victory in its legal battle with Italian ham producers after an adviser to the European Union's highest court said it could sell prosciutto under the Parma ham name - even if the product was sliced and packaged outside Parma region.
If confirmed by the European Court of Justice, the decision could have implications for the processing of hundreds of foodstuffs that are on the EU's "protected denominations of origin" list. Such products range from Kalamata olives to Ardennes butter.
The Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma, a consortium of ham producers based in the Italian city, first took action against Asda and Hygrade Foods, which supplies the ham to the supermarket group, in 1997. It argued that control over the whole process was essential to offer customers the best guarantee of product quality and origin.
Lower courts in the UK dismissed the consortium's case but it went to the House of Lords. The law lords asked the European Court of Justice to rule on the interpretation of European law in this area.
The decision was handed down by Siegbert Alber, advocate-general at the ECJ, with the Asda/Parma ham situation being considered alongside a similar case involving France's Ravil, which grates "Grana Padano" cheese outside Italy's Po valley.
The advocate-general ruled that slicing or grating and packaging by the makers could not be regarded "as measures which serve to protect commercially material characteristics of ham or cheese".
He acknowledged that special expertise was required in these processes, but pointed out that this could be applied outside the production region. He also noted that hams and cheeses are often exported "whole" and sliced by retailers.
The opinions of advocates-general are not binding on the court of justice, but the advice is adopted in about 80 per cent of cases. A final decision from the court is expected next year.
The ham producers said they were disappointed, but still hopeful that the full court would take a different position. They cited the Rioja wine case, where mandatory bottling in the production area was viewed as justified two years ago.
Asda said it was hopeful that the opinion represented "the beginning of the end of this particular case". Parma ham, the supermarket group admitted, "is not one of our best-selling cold meats", and had entailed a five-year legal tussle.
If the advocate-general's position is confirmed, the supermarket group said it would review other such products to see if there were cost-savings to be achieved from processing away from the production area.