The European immigrants who settled in the U.S. more than a century ago and began reproducing the cheeses of their homeland couldn’t have imagined we would be arguing about that today. These newcomers, not surprisingly, marketed their cheeses with the names they knew: asiago, romano, brie, parmesan, feta. Today, the EU protests that American cheesemakers have no right to these names and insists we stop using them. And the American producers tell the EU to take a hike. These are generic names now, the argument goes. They belong to no one.
The long-simmering issue of common cheese names is potentially heating up again as the U.S. and the EU prepare to resume trade talks. It’s unclear whether the proposed talks will include agriculture—the U.S. says yes, the EU says no—but if so, the issue of common cheese names will be on the table.
“The threat is serious and mounting,” says Jaime Castaneda, executive director of the Consortium for Common Food Names, which advocates for the rights of American cheesemakers to use European names that some consider generic, such as provolone. The Consortium is touting a new study that documents the potential economic impact if EU negotiators persuade their American counterparts to relent on the issue. The study predicts significant job losses and plunging demand for U.S. cheese if shoppers can no longer find the domestic havarti or romano that they know. Bottom line, says Castaneda: American consumers will have fewer choices and face higher prices if Europeans can monopolize these familiar cheese terms.
“If you are looking for parmesan and the only parmesan you can find is the European one and it’s very expensive, then either you’re not going to buy it or you’re going to reduce the amount you buy,” says Castaneda.
He argues that early American creameries were making fontina, emmentaler and gorgonzola long before Europe began protecting these names; in his view, the EU is unfairly trying to claw back the terms now. Although dozens of European cheeses now have PDO status (Protected Designation of Origin, or DOP in Italian) defining where and how they are made, that protection ends at our border. Absent a trade agreement, American producers aren’t bound by PDO laws. A French creamery can’t make manchego but a Wisconsin creamery can.
To break the impasse, CCFN proposes protecting place-specific names—like Danish Havarti, Greek feta, French Munster—while allowing others to use the generic term. Under this scheme, Italian Gorgonzola and gorgonzola would coexist in a cheese case and Americans would grasp the difference.
Europeans are certain to push back, rejecting proposals that uncouple a cheese from its place of origin. If authentic Havarti is Danish, as EU authorities would argue, the country name is unnecessary. “When I first moved to the U.S. and went into a store, I had to say, ‘I want Swiss cheese from Switzerland,’” recalls Jean-Louis Carbonnier, a French representative for Comté in the United States. “How crazy is that?”
As wine lovers know, Champagne producers fought a similar battle against California sparkling wine for years. The eventual agreement, says Carbonnier, who worked for the Champagne industry at the time, allowed existing American brands to retain the term “champagne” but prohibited its use on any new domestic sparklers.
It’s an emotional issue with a lot of dollars riding on it. If you’re an Italian producer of Fontina PDO, you’re not too happy about the California fontina that undercuts you. If you’re a Wisconsin producer with a decades-long history of making Emmentaler, your business is threatened.
Which side are you on?