A Cheese By Any Other Name

September 01,2012
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The U.S. cheese business is built on a heritage dating back hundreds of years, since the time when immigrants, mostly from Europe, brought their food preferences with them from the Old World to the New. Unfortunately, the Europeans now want to ignore that global migration, and reclaim some products’ names just for themselves.

For the past several years, trade negotiators with the European Union (EU) have been making greater inroads in restricting the use of the names and translations – in trade parlance, the Geographic Indications (GIs) – for some foods and beverages made in certain parts of the world. Champagne from France is an obvious example. But so are cheeses such as Feta from Greece, Gorgonzola from Italy, and others. The EU asserts that if the principle of Geographic Indications is applied to these cheeses, any similar food products made elsewhere, from Argentina to the U.S., are not just pale imitators, but in violation of international trade laws.

While clawing back these names of common and popular consumer products may seem like a far-fetched goal, the EU has already had success in restricting the use of several key GIs in a free trade agreement it reached with South Korea. For instance, any cheeses labeled as Asiago, Feta, Fontina, and Gorgonzola now sold in Korea can only come from Europe. And even though the U.S. just signed its own free trade deal with South Korea, we’re now subject to the cheese GI restrictions written into the deal between the EU and Korea.

The stakes for this battle are big and growing. More than $20 billion in U.S. cheese production utilizes European-origin names. Last year, almost $1 billion in U.S. cheeses were exported; many of these could be harmed by the EU’s aggressive attempt to confiscate common names.

In order to fight this trend, NMPF earlier this year joined with the U.S. Dairy Export Council and other domestic and international organizations to form the Consortium for Common Food Names (CCFN). The CCFN is devoted to informing consumer groups, farmer associations, manufacturers, trade and intellectual property officials of the damage that will be caused in their own countries if efforts to restrict the use of common food names go unchecked. CCFN provides an internationally-organized counterbalance to the EU’s overly-aggressive approach to restricting product names. Its website, www.commonfoodnames.com, provides information to companies interested in joining this important effort, as well as to policy makers around the world.

While focused on more than just dairy foods, the Consortium for Common Food Names is reaching to all manufacturers of cheeses and milk producers to encourage them to challenge the EU’s attempt to produce more free trade deals like the one between Europe and South Korea. While the World Trade Organization talks are in suspended animation, other broad, multi-party talks are moving forward, where a discussion of limiting the use of GIs may be on the table. The EU has concluded free-trade agreement talks with South Korea, Colombia, Peru, and Central America in the past few years. Negotiations with India, Brazil, Singapore, Malaysia and more than 30 other countries are ongoing. And once a precedent is set among these countries to restrict GIs, the limitations could be very damaging to future commerce, even if the U.S. isn’t a party to the agreement.

Moreover, the biggest prize of all – the U.S. market – is one the EU is keenly eyeing as it insists on imposing its views on GIs on the U.S. With a potential U.S.-EU trade deal currently under consideration, the U.S. cheese sector faces a very real threat if negotiators write any GI restrictions into a resulting agreement.

A reasonable path exists to protect location-specific GIs, say, for Parmigiano Reggiano, as opposed to the much more generic Parmesan. The U.S. has some interest in using GIs of its own, but a clear and limited scope of protection is what is needed, not a blanket restriction. It doesn’t help that Europe has been incredibly arbitrary in fighting for some GIs, such as Asiago, but not others, such as “Cheddar.”

As global trade barriers gradually come down, bit by bit and country by country, groups like NMPF and the CCFN have to ensure that new barriers in different forms – or in different names – don’t rise to take their place. The U.S. versions of Feta and Gorgonzola should be able to compete with versions made elsewhere. Consumers around the world will be the ultimate judges as to which are best.