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Greece moves to reclaim Greek yogurt

Can yogurt be called Greek if it's not made in Greece? The government in Athens faces an uphill battle in defending its creators of the dairy delight which generates billions of euros in global profits.

Ancient Greece gave yogurt to the world and Modern Greece is claiming it back. Fed up with imposters, the government in Athens is considering legal action against the Czech Republic for producing - and profiting from - a product it claims exclusively as its own. 

The move is part of an action plan drawn up by a 14-member working group set up this month by Greece's Agriculture Ministry. It is ramping up efforts to block non-Greek producers - at least within the European Union - from manufacturing the thick, creamy dairy delight known to palates across the world. 

The European Commission has already warned Prague that its production of imitation Greek yoghurt is creating unfair competition. So far though, to no avail. As a result, Athens is now taking a harder line. "Athens is going on the offensive," says Thodoris Panagoulis, a spokesperson for Greece's Agriculture Ministry. "It has an obligation to protect its interest as best as possible." 

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Healthy profits

With the product's global market estimated to be over 50 billion euros ($59.6 billion), Greece's bid to reclaim ownership of its prized product could claw back billions of euros in lost trade from certain key markets. The European Union itself is the world's largest consumer of Greek yogurt, accounting for 39 percent of its global trade. Asia ranks second with 28 percent with North America accounting for 15 percent. 

Rival manufacturers have already staked a foothold in the thriving industry. Yet despite the product's popularity, driven by a sweeping perception that the food is healthier than regular yogurt and other health snacks, Greece's leading dairy manufacturer FAGE is seeing sales swoon. 

According to data published by capital.gr - a financial news website based in Athens - the company's trade volume slid by 8.5 percent in the second half of 2016, with sales in the UK alone sinking by nearly 8 percent as competitors increased their production.

Elderly Greek in a supermarket eying yogurt products

Supermarkets in Greece shun yogurt from foreign makers, offering only those made by local producers. But that doesn't help Greek companies on global markets.

Legal wager

Critics blame the leftist government of Alexis Tsipras for doing too little, too late - a charge which the Greek Agriculture Ministry fiercely rejects. "We've been raising complaints within the EU for over a year," Panagoulis told DW. "The issue isn't just to act fact, but prove effective. Obviously, this tiff rolls back to the local Greek dairy producers and we are doing everything to protect them." 

A hasty move could backfire. The Ministry is increasingly weighing its options, especially the possibility of seeking legal recourse with the European Court of Justice to stop the Czech Republic and other countries from producing Greek yogurt, which is often twice as expensive as regular yogurt.

"The investigative committee is currently putting together argumentation for a legal case," said Panagoulis. "But even that course of action will have to be further assessed because Greece cannot afford to lose." 

Other options Athens is considering include stepping up plans to register Greek yogurt as "a product protected by its geographical indication." This status would ensure that the product is manufactured in its country of origin - something akin to French Champagne, Italian prosciutto and English Stilton. 

Kraft foods logo

Kraft is one of those multinationals that Athens wants to take on. The US dairy giant has developped its own Greek yogurt line, faking authenticity as craftily as everyone else.

Rivals ready defenses

Officials in Athens hope to secure this status by the end of the year. But even then, imitation Greek yogurt production will hardly cease to exist, experts say. The product, they explain, which is strained of its whey through cheesecloth to produce thick, creamy yogurt, has been around for eons, traditionally consumed by ancient Greeks with honey. However, the current marketing push is new, driven by rapidly changing health trends and cravings for a richer, creamier taste in yogurt which imitation products attain by using thickeners and proteins. 

If Greece manages to safeguard its prized product, then foreign producers may be forced to re-brand their yogurts, scrapping references to the word "Greek" from their labels. The protected status, however, will only apply within the EU, leaving a major share of the global market untouched. 

The New York-based firm Chobani, which was founded by a Turkish immigrant, now ranks as the leading American producer of Greek yogurt, taking in about three million pounds (1.6 million kilograms) of milk a day from upstate New York to make a million pounds of a yogurt. Repeated attempts for comment went unheeded by the company this week. 

Despite the trends, General Mills, and its make of Yoplait Greek tanked almost instantly this year. Less than discouraged, the company said it was abandoning its Greek endeavor, paying homage instead to the company's French roots, introducing a yogurt called Oui. 

"For consumers today, food isn't just about sustenance," said Darren Seifer, a food analyst at the market research company NPD Group. "People want a story behind what they buy. That's why craft beers and small organics are doing so well. They're selling authenticity: Big companies want that." 

Greeks want it too. 

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