SUBSCRIBE

Breaking News on Food and Beverage Processing and PackagingWorldUSEurope

News > Supply Chain

Melton Mowbray pie fight to be heard by EU court

By Ahmed ElAmin , 29-Mar-2006

Northern Foods' battle to keep its lucrative market for Melton Mowbray pork pies will be heard by the EU's top court.

The battle has evolved as a ground breaking case over the EU's geographical indications (GI) system, which is posing problems for manufacturers who use the names of traditional products.

The company is also concerned that other GI applications for products it makes, such as Cornish pasties, could result in its loss of the right to use those names.

 

Two appeal judges in London this month ruled that the European Court of Justice (ECJ) needed to clarify the EU's regulation governing areas of protected geographical indication (PGI), one of the GI classifications. They need the preliminary ruling before they can decide on the merits of of the court case.

 

The PGI system protects the names of foods such as "Melton Mowbray" from being used by manufacturers who produce similar products outside of a designated area.

 

The case is a result of an application by the UK's Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to the European Commission on behalf of local producers in the area of Melton Mowbray for their pies to be protected under the GI system. Defra, as part of a government policy to promote local foods, is applying under the GI system for protected geographical indication (PGI) status for the area.

 

If granted, it would be the first recipe-based product to receive such status in the UK.

 

The GI application would restrict production of the pies to an area of 1,800 square miles of the East Midlands. The area includes Leicester, Nottingham and Northampton.

 

Northern Foods argues that this is an artificially large zone. Samworth Brothers, the association's dominant member and the market leader, manufactures Melton Mowbray pork pies in Leicester, which is within the zone.

 

Northern Foods said the UK Court of Appeal's decision supports the company's legal challenge.

 

"We have always stated that traditional quality-defined, speciality food has an important place in the British food market, and in our appeal we confirmed that Northern Foods has never opposed appropriate protection for Melton Mowbray Pork Pies," the company stated. "We have argued consistently that the artificial zone applied for was misleading and that the case represented cynical misuse of EU legislation to the benefit of a single mass producer."

 

The company has said in the past that two of its factories that make the pork pie could face closure after a High Court judge ruled in December against the company's attempt to block Defra's bid to gain PGI status for the local producers, who belong to the Melton Mowbray Pie Association.

 

Samworth Brothers, the association's dominant member and the market leader, manufactures Melton Mowbray pork pies in Leicester, which is within the zone.

 

Northern Foods currently makes its Melton Mowbray pies in Market Drayton, Shropshire, and Trowbridge, Wiltshire. The company has made Melton Mowbray pork pies for about 100 years at its sites across the UK.

 

The EU's rules require that GI approved areas stick to the specifications outlined in their applications, including the product's recipe, and keeping production 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 the name. A successful application would prevent other companies, including Northern Foods, 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 market for its Melton Mowbray pies, Northern Foods decided to take the case to court last year in an effort to bloc the application. The case was heard by the Court of Appeal in early December.

 

On 21 December Justice Crane turned down Northern Foods' bid, allowing the application to the Commission to proceed.

 

The application also specifies that genuine Melton Mowbray pork pies must be grey in colour and made from uncured pork. The Melton Mowbray Pie Association's dominant member and leading commercial manufacturer, Samworth Brothers, produces both cured and uncured pies under the name.

 

Melton Mowbray Pork Pies are made by both large scale food manufacturers and small artisan producers up and down the country. The market is worth an estimated £51.7m per year and is the fastest growing section of the pork pie market.

 

Samworth Brothers has a 62 per cent market share, followed by Northern Foods with a 24 per cent market share. Samworth Brothers manufactures over 99 per cent of the pies produced by Association members. The Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association lodged an application with Defra in 1999.

 

In 1993 EU legislation came into force which provides for a system for the protection of food names on a geographical or traditional recipe basis. The system is similar to the familiar "appellation controllée" system used for wine.

 

The scheme highlights regional and traditional foods whose authenticity and origin can be guaranteed. Under this system a named food or drink registered at a European level will be given legal protection against imitation throughout the EU.

 

Defra said the decision in December on Melton Mowbray pies justified the department's decision to champion the cause.

 

"The government's policy is to encourage more UK producers to take advantage of the EU protected food name scheme," stated Lord Bach, the UK's minister for food and farming. "Protection provides a means for producers to add value and to meet consumers' growing demand for food with a clear regional provenance."

 

To date, 36 UK products have been registered with the EU including Stilton Cheese, Cornish Clotted Cream and West Country Farmhouse Cheddar. A further 18 applications are being considered.

 

The EU wants international recognition for the GI system and has applied to World Trade Organisation to get it ratified. That application is being contested by the US, which claims the system is nothing but another form of trade protection.

 

The Cornish Pasty Association has also applied to Defra to get their pie included under the EU's PGI system.

 

The Cornish Pasty Association is a group of about 40 of the county's pasty manufacturers and bakers who are applying for European protected status for the Cornish pasty.

 

If the application for PGI status is successful it will mean that only pasties manufactured in Cornwall can legally be called Cornish pasties. Cornish pasties would also be able to carry the PGI symbol.

 

ACNielsen values the UK's retail savoury pastries market at around £307m and growing by six per cent year-on-year.

 

To date, 36 UK products have been registered with the EU including Stilton Cheese, Cornish Clotted Cream and West Country Farmhouse Cheddar. A further 18 applications are being considered.

 

Subscribe to our FREE newsletter

Get FREE access to authoritative breaking news, videos, podcasts, webinars and white papers. SUBSCRIBE