“Remember, gentlemen, it’s not just France we are fighting for, it’s Champagne!”
Sir Winston Churchill
Champagne is certainly one of France’s most valuable contributions to gastronomy. Since 1936 it has enjoyed protected status of Designation of Origin (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée). Designations of Origin are defined in article L. 115-1 of the French Consumer Code as “the name of a country, of a region or of a locality serving to designate a product which originates from there and the quality or character of which is due to the geographical location, comprising natural and man-made factors.”
The Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC), an inter-branch organization which defends the interests of Champagne producers, is very active in the protection of the word Champagne as Designation of Origin, and fights against any misappropriation of the word Champagne by third parties.
The CIVC recently succeeded in a hard-fought legal battle against the French food company EURALIS, which offered for sale in supermarkets prepared dishes cooked with Champagne and used the word Champagne in its products trade names as follows: “guinea fowl with Champagne”, “goose stew (gigolette) with Champagne” and “duck foie gras (liver) with two peppers and Champagne”.
The CIVC filed an action against EURALIS, grounded on article L. 643-1 § 2 of the Rural and Marine Fishery Code, which prohibits the use of a Designation of Origin that is likely to misappropriate or weaken its reputation.
In response, EURALIS argued that the mention of Champagne in its trade name was required by article R. 112-14 of the Consumer Code, which provides that products trade names must be sufficiently precise and accurate to allow consumers to identify the real nature of the product and to avoid any likelihood of confusion with other products.
On 25 November 2014, the French Supreme Court (Cour de Cassation) rejected EURALIS arguments and held that, in the case in point, the use of Champagne in the products' trade names was not justified by the legitimate information of consumers, and violated article L. 643-1 § 2 of the Rural and Marine Fishery Code.
Firstly, EURALIS dishes contained only 2% Champagne, and according to a comparative survey conducted amongst French consumers, only 17% could taste Champagne in the dishes. The mention of Champagne in the list of ingredients was therefore sufficient to meet the consumer information requirements.
Secondly, EURALIS included a picture of a Champagne flute on its product packaging, and the word Champagne was written in « elegant English letters », which contrasted with the block letter font used for the other words of the trade names.
Therefore, the Supreme Court considered that the use of the word Champagne in the names of EURALIS products did not aim at complying with consumer information requirements, but at misappropriating the Champagne Designation of Origin and could weaken its reputation. EURALIS was therefore ordered to change the packaging of its products and to pay €30.000 damages to CIVC.
The Supreme Court decision of 25 November 2014 complies with the guidelines laid down on 16 December 2010 by the European Commission, on the labelling of foodstuffs using a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO - European Equivalent of the French Designation of Origin), or a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI). The European Commission considers that a PDO or PGI indication can be mentioned within the trade name, the labelling and the advertising of a food product “if the ingredient concerned is used in sufficient quantities to confer an essential characteristic on the foodstuff concerned”.
In the case in point, the products sold by EURALIS did not fulfill these requirements.