Fromage Fracas: Dairy Producers Say Cheese’s Origin Shouldn’t Matter

With the European Union pushing for trade rules with stricter standards for the naming of common foods—especially cheeses—U.S. dairy groups are encouraging the federal government to fight back. So far, most of the Senate is on their side.

Should the word “Parmesan” be a region-specific term, like “Champagne,” or generic, like “aspirin”?

The European Union, which represents many of the geographic regions known for the cheese they produce, is pushing to limit the usage of names for common varieties like Parmesan, Gorgonzola, and feta. But the U.S. dairy industry is pushing back. More details:

A pale imitation? Sure, varieties of cheese like feta are common in the United States, but the EU’s view is that the cheeses are so unlike the original localized versions that they don’t deserve to carry the name. That, the EU argues, damages the brand name of the “real” stuff by diminishing its reputation. So the EU wants new trade regulations that would require the use of terms like “imitation” or “-style” to denote cheeses produced outside of the area where a variety originated. Sound so absurd that it can’t happen? Don’t be so sure. Canada made a deal with the EU last fall on the issue. Now, new Canadian producers of European-style cheeses will have to use a qualifier with name, though existing producers are exempt and can still say it’s the real thing. A spokesman for the European Commission didn’t say much to the Associated Press about the effort, other than that it’s “an important issue for the EU.”

U.S. dairy producers concerned: Two dairy-industry trade groups, the U.S. Dairy Export Council and National Milk Producers Federation, say such restrictions would unfairly target the $4 billion domestic cheese industry and that product name changes would cause market confusion. “It’s really stunning that the Europeans are trying to claw back products made popular in other countries,” NMPF President Jim Mulhern told the AP.

Support from Washington: The dairy groups have some powerful friends in their corner, and earlier this week, they spoke up. A bipartisan group of more than 50 senators, led by Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Pat Toomey (R-PA), sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman asking them to push back against the EU. “In the states that we represent, many small or medium-sized family-owned farms and firms could have their business unfairly restricted by the EU’s push to use geographical indications as a barrier to dairy trade and competition,” the letter stated.

(photo by stevendepolo/Flickr)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!