Is Your Feta Illegal?

Feta. What a cheese. Cut it, crumble it, whack it in a salad, buy a block and eat it whole. Enjoy it while it lasts, because that feta you’ve just put on your fancy pizza? That feta is a filthy knock off. Pure, unadulterated scum.

Well, not really. It’s probably still delicious, but don’t try selling it in Europe, because thanks to a very dense piece of European Union legislation referred to as ‘Geographical Indications’, your delicious crumbly cheesy salty treat is illegal for sheer virtue of not being from the right place. Your cheese formerly known as feta is so closely associated with the history of Greece that you can’t call it feta if it’s not from the crossroads of Europe.

This logic is at the heart of the geographical indications law. If it’s not from a certain place, you can’t call it a certain name. Some well-known examples include Scotch Whiskey, Parma ham, and Roquefort cheese. By now it’s pretty common knowledge that Champagne is only Champagne if it comes from the Champagne region in France, and anything is a filthy knockoff. You hear that, New Zealand wine industry?

The problem for most producers is that there is no protection for these products outside the EU. Many countries have decided to play nice and go along with it – case in point being New Zealand with champagne – but if a food producer in a country that has no reliance on the EU wants to name their cheese Stilton or their wine Champagne, they can, and they’ll face little recrimination. Brexit could pose some troubles, with the UK no longer beholden to the EU. Some economists are predicting that geographical indication protections could play a key role in post-Brexit trade negotiations, with the UK essentially holding the names hostage in order to gain leverage in the discussions – but then again, who would want English Champagne anyway?

New Zealand passed similar legislation in 2006, but it wasn’t until last year that the government passed the necessary amendment to make it enforceable. The measures will mainly apply to the wine industry, protecting area brands like Central Otago and Marlborough.

As with most dense legislation, the geographical indications laws offer some classic tales of bureaucracy gone mad. Newcastle Brown Ale, for example, could only be called Newcastle Brown Ale is it was brewed within the city limits of Newcastle Upon Tyne – the home of the aptly named Newcastle Breweries, where the Brown Ale was first developed. In 2004, Newcastle decided to upsize their facilities and move across the river to Gateshead, which is technically another city even though it is only 150 metres away. The move meant that Newcastle Breweries, the founders of Newcastle Brown Ale, weren’t allowed to call their Brown Ale ‘Newcastle Brown Ale’ without express permission from the European Union. They got it eventually and could continue brewing and selling as they pleased. Now, as it happens, the beer is brewed in the Netherlands.