LG Freiburg: Food products’ county of origin must be correctly specified

Michael RainerManaging Partner, MTR Rechtsanwälte

Apples that were merely packaged in Germany must not carry the designation of origin “aus Deutschland” / “from Germany”. That was the verdict of the Landgericht (LG) Freiburg – the Regional Court of Freiburg – in a ruling from January 14, 2020 (Az.: 12 O 88/19 KfH).

The origin of food products is a key factor influencing consumers’ purchase decisions. Accordingly, the courts are increasingly having to deal with legal disputes concerning designations of origin. We at the commercial law firm MTR Rechtsanwälte note that in order for Germany to be designated as the country of origin of a food product, for example, it is not necessary for the entire production process to take place in Germany.

That being said, it is not enough for food products to be merely packaged in Germany. That was the verdict of the Landgericht Freiburg in a case involving apples from Italy.

In the case in question, a discount supermarket had labeled apples on store shelves as coming from Germany. In fact, the fruit had come from and been picked in Italy, and only packaged in Germany. For this reason, the consumer advice center for the German state of Baden-Württemberg – the Verbraucherzentrale Baden-Württemberg – initially issued the company with a formal warning for misleading consumers, before later filing a successful lawsuit. The LG Freiburg ruled that one must not give the impression that the country of origin of apples from Italy is Germany.

It is not necessary, however, for the entire process – from growing and picking to packaging – to take place in the country of origin. In a ruling from September 4, 2019 (Az. C-686/17), the ECJ held that the location of the harvest is the decisive factor for the designation of the county of origin. The case concerned mushrooms whose labeling specified Germany as the country of origin, despite having been grown in the Netherlands and brought to Germany shortly before being harvested.

This was sufficient to justify specifying Germany as the country of origin. The ECJ held that European customs law was decisive, noting that according to the Union Customs Code, the country of origin is the country in which the harvest takes place.

Geographical indications and designations of origin are important to both businesses and consumers. Yet the correct legal classification is not always clear, with infringements potentially giving rise to appropriate sanctions. Lawyers with experience in the fields of antitrust and competition law can offer advice.