Generally, food products with a name that includes a geographic region must originate from that region. After all, if you purchase “Kalamata Greek Olives” you would expect them to come from Greece. On the other hand, some product names with geographic term have evolved such that consumers understand that they describe a type of product rather than the product’s geographic origin. “French fries” and “Belgian waffles” are prime examples. So what does this mean for “Greek yogurt”?
In the UK, this issue was decided (for the time being) on March 26th when a judge sided with the Greek company FAGE and issued a permanent injunction against Chobani prohibiting it from marketing its US-made yogurt as “Greek” in the UK. FAGE was the first brand of “Greek yogurt” introduced in the U.S. back in 1998 while Chobani entered the market in 2007. FAGE gave the yogurt “Greek” in its title because, presumably, Greek yogurt was more appealing than strained yogurt. FAGE and “Greek yogurt” product category went on to enjoy massive success.
According to its UK lawsuit, FACE claims that only yogurt made in Greece should be called ‘Greek’ and yogurt made elsewhere should be described as ‘Greek-style’. Chobani disagreed and asserted that “Greek” refers to the straining process used to make the yogurt and not a product made in Greece. On its website, Chobani says: “The word ‘Greek’ describes how we make the yogurt in our products. We make our yogurt the authentic way, never adding any thickeners. Instead, we use a centuries-old technique of straining to remove excess liquid. This is why Chobani is so thick, creamy and has two times more protein per serving than regular yogurt.” A High Court UK judge ruled that Chobani was misrepresenting its product to British consumers by using labeling that calls the product “Greek yoghurt.” In particular:
I have concluded that, in fact, a substantial proportion of those who buy Greek yoghurt in the UK (probably well in excess of 50% of all Greek yoghurt buyers) think that it is made in Greece, and that the proportion of those Greek yoghurt buyers to whom it matters is substantial, even though it is a modest proportion of yoghurt eaters as a whole. It follows that, in my judgment, FAGE has succeeded in demonstrating that substantial goodwill has become attached to the use of the phrase Greek yoghurt, in the sense that it creates pulling power, rather than merely denotes a geographical origin to which buyers are indifferent.
The ruling does not bar Chobani from labeling its British product as “Greek style” yogurt. Notably, unlike hundreds of products in Europe that enjoy a special “protected” status from European authorities (such as Parmesan cheese or Champaign that the EU says have distinct flavors and qualities from specific geographic regions), the term ‘Greek yogurt’ does not have special protected status.