The battle for the right to make Melton Mowbray pork pies will resume next week. On March 14, Northern Foods will request leave to appeal against a decision by the High Court that Defra was right to back a bid by the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association (MMPPA) to get Europe-wide protected status for its members’ products.
There’s a lot riding on the hearing. If Northern Foods’ legal bid fails, and if the Association’s application for Protected Geographical Indication status is ultimately approved by Brussels, manufacturers will only be able to market pies as Melton Mowbray pork pies if they are produced in a specific area around the town.
This will be bad news for Northern Foods, which makes a quarter of the UK’s Melton Mowbray pork pies in Wiltshire and Shropshire, which fall outside the area specified in the MMPPA’s application.
So how far-reaching could this eventually be? Will there soon be tight restrictions on where companies can manufacture traditional foods such as Chelsea buns, Eccles cakes, Lancashire hotpot and Lincolnshire sausages?
The pork pie has been caught up in the battle waged by growing numbers of food producers to get EU protected status for foods with names connected to a place.
Cornwall-based manufacturers of Cornish pasties are looking to get in on the act, and again Northern Foods, which makes Cornish pasties in Shropshire, could lose out. Defra has asked Northern Foods to raise any objections to the Cornish Pasty Association’s application for PGI status before it decides whether to back it. Northern Foods is due to submit its response shortly.
Meanwhile, Anne McIntosh, Conservative shadow foreign minister and MP for the Vale of York, has tabled an Early Day Motion calling for Yorkshire puddings to be given protected status.
Compared with many other countries in the EU, the UK still has relatively few regionally protected products - 36 compared with 147 in France. But it is something that Defra, through which applications must be channelled, is keen to promote as part of its bid to make British food production more sustainable.
It is currently considering 18 applications for protected status for products such as Colchester oysters, English beef and lamb, and Yorkshire indoor rhubarb.
A spokeswoman for the department says: “The government has been actively seeking to encourage more UK applications as part of our support for the quality regional food sector. The scheme provides a means for farmers to add value to their produce and market it in a more imaginative way, particularly given consumers’ growing interest in food with a clear regional provenance.”
However, this doesn’t mean that every product claiming a regional connection will be affected, according to Tim Stephenson, partner in the commodities and trade division of London law firm Hill Taylor Dickinson.
He says that protection for any food name that has become a generic term would be ruled out by the EU’s own regulations. Yorkshire puddings would probably be a case in point here, he says.
“I’d be very surprised to see Yorkshire puddings get protection. Everyone makes them and no one calls them anything else.
“If you order roast beef and Yorkshire pudding when eating in a restaurant in Penzance, there’s no way you would expect the Yorkshire pudding to have actually been made in Yorkshire.”
Stephenson expects Cornish pasty makers to struggle with their application. “Cornish pasties are made and consumed nationwide, and you would have to look at the evidence to see whether people buying them presumed they were made in Cornwall. I think they will face stiff opposition on the basis that it is a generic name.”
And even if producers can persuade officials that the name of their product is not generic, they still have a lot of work to do, says Stephenson.
“To get PGI status producers also have to show that a product possesses one of three things - a specific quality, a specific reputation or other characteristics attributable to its geographical origin.
“Take the Yorkshire pudding. The geographical region here is Yorkshire, but what specific quality or reputation does the product have that’s attributable to Yorkshire? The name denotes a basic recipe.”
The EU’s Protected Food Names Scheme has been around since 1993, when it was brought in to safeguard and promote foods that have some kind of special characteristic.
In the case of PGI and sister award Protected Designation of Origin, this is related to the place in which a food is produced. But it can also relate to the way products are made, a status known as Traditional Speciality Guaranteed. The EU argues that the Protected Food Names Scheme prevents consumers being misled by companies that might try to pass off foods as something they are not.
Defra’s eagerness for British products to be protected is making life difficult for companies such as Northern Foods, which faces the prospect of either changing the name of its products or upping sticks and moving production.
Don’t be fooled into thinking this is just another case of David versus Goliath. The MMPPA’s biggest member, Leicester-based Samworth Brothers, has a 55% share of the £52m Melton Mowbray pork pie market. The Cornish Pasty Association, meanwhile, boasts major supplier Ginsters among its members.
In last December’s High Court case, Northern Foods did not claim that the Melton Mowbray pork pie was a generic name, nor did it deny that the product had a special link with Melton Mowbray.
It objected instead to the MMPPA’s application on the grounds that it covered an area that is far wider than Melton Mowbray itself - 1,800 square miles, taking in Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and parts of Northamptonshire and Lincolnshire - which, it argued, was arbitrarily created. If PGI status were to be awarded, it should cover only the town of Melton Mowbray.
To Northern Foods’ chagrin, the judge ruled that while the EU scheme allowed protection for food produced in a “defined geographical area”, this did not mean that this area had to be exactly that denoted by the name of a product. Therefore, said the judge, Defra was justified in supporting the Melton Mowbray application.
“If the basis of an application was that Melton Mowbray pork pies had to be made in Melton Mowbray, then it would cover only a tiny volume of production. I don’t think the MMPPA would have wanted that,” says Stephenson.
If judges grant Northern Foods leave to appeal next week, it is likely to prolong for at least another six months a wrangle that began in 1999, when the MMPPA first submitted its application.
With another 17 applications in Defra’s in-tray, Europe’s Protected Food Names Scheme could keep our courts busy for some time.
But even if it doesn’t succeed on Tuesday, and the EU approves the MMPPA’s application for PGI status, Northern Foods will be able to challenge the decision in the European courts, something MMPPA chairman Matthew Callaghan expects it to do. Unperturbed, he warns: “We will fight this all the way, if necessary.”
Feta expect the unexpected
>>an unwelcome drag on the purse strings
One loser in the rush to protect foods has been Yorkshire cheese maker Shepherds Purse.
The company will have to rename its second best-selling cheese, Yorkshire Feta, next year after a ruling by Brussels that Feta could only be made in Greece.
For company founder Judy Bell, the EU’s decision still rankles. “It has given us a higher profile and people probably think we’re a bigger business than we are. But we have taken on very high costs in fighting this case.”
The EU’s decision to give Feta Protected Designation of Origin was unusual in that there is nowhere in Greece called Feta. In Bell’s view, this renders the ruling “a nonsense”.
Lawyer Tim Stephenson is inclined to agree. “I’m surprised the application wasn’t defeated.
“Most people use the name Feta to mean a generic type of cheese.”
The case illustrates the possibility of unexpected decisions - and that is likely to encourage many producers to seek a PGI.