Italy, Slovenia await Commission to settle balsamic vinegar dispute

Italian farmers' association Coldiretti deemed the Slovenian attempt to 'standardise' the production of balsamic vinegar as a purse-snatching that will cost Italian producers over €1 billion. [SHUTTERSTOCK/GUA]

Italy is up in arms, trying to defend the world-famous balsamic vinegar of Modena from an attempt to ‘standardise’ its production made by Slovenia, and the European Commission appears to have until 3 March to settle the issue.

Slovenia notified the European Commission in early December of some national draft rules on the quality of vinegar and diluted acetic acid.

The main goal of this national technical standard is to ensure that any hashing of wine vinegar can be sold as balsamic vinegar, which is recognised as an Italian food speciality.

The European Union has granted balsamic vinegar produced in the Italian city of Modena the protected designation of origin (PDO) and the protected geographical indications (PDI) statuses against counterfeits.

However, a 2019 ruling from the European Court of Justice (ECJ) stated that such protection is not extended to its non-geographical components, namely ‘aceto’ and ‘balsamico’.

The Luxembourg-based court was asked to give a ruling upon request from the German Federal Court related to a case that involved the Italian consortium of balsamic vinegar producers from Modena and a German company that labelled their vinegar-based products as ‘balsamic’.

Slovenians rely on this interpretation of the EU Court to make a standard for the production of balsamic vinegar which will open a new business segment.

Upon hearing the news from Slovenia, Italian balsamic vinegar producers went ballistic, speaking of a “direct attack on the European quality agri-food system” and “an illegitimate operation that breaches the EU regulations protecting geographical indications.”

The Italian farmers’ associations Coldiretti deemed the Slovenian attempt as a purse-snatching that will cost balsamic vinegar producers more than €1 billion.

The balsamic vinegar dossier is the first challenge for the newly appointed agriculture minister in Mario Draghi’s cabinet, Five Star Movement’s Stefano Patuanelli.

“The protection of Italy’s food and wine heritage is a priority for the government, so we will do all we can to defend balsamic vinegar of Modena against these undue attacks,” he told the Italian news agency ANSA.

EURACTIV was informed that the Commission has less than a week to settle the issue, as the period to assess the draft measures expires this Wednesday (3 March).

The issue of balsamic vinegar protection in the light of the ECJ ruling was raised last year by the Italian MEP Paolo De Castro, who asked the Commission to clarify the matter.

In a reply letter seen by EURACTIV, the EU’s Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski acknowledged that the judgement did not extend the protection to non-geographical terms, but pointed out that the court did not discuss the notion of evocation.

According to the 2011 quality scheme regulation, registered names are protected not only against misuse or imitation but also evocation of the place in which products are made.

For instance, in a landmark ruling in 2019, the ECJ stated as unlawful the use of the literary character Don Quixote de La Mancha for the promotion of a certain cheese as it “evoked” the geographical area with which the manchego cheese, which holds the PDO status, is associated.

The Commission suggested that an evocation may be detected where components of the presentation, including figurative and verbal elements, are found liable to bring directly in the mind of the consumer the protected PGI name.

Although the assessment of specific cases of claimed evocation falls within the remit of national courts, Wojciechowski’s letter and the reference to the concept of ‘evocation’ keep a door open to Italy’s last bid to protect its beloved ‘aceto balsamico’.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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