Alan Bjerga: What’s in a name? Quite a lot. A name is identity, familiarity. In dairy, it defines a taste and experience. So when the European Union tries to take generations old commonly understood cheese names that fit well within a product standard of identity and says, “This can only be used by us” that’s a problem both for consumers and for companies that rely on these terms to do what they do best, provide the best cheeses in the world that consumers have come to expect. John Umhoefer is the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association in Madison, and he collaborates closely on these common name issues with NMPF’s trade policy team. Thus joining John is Shawna Morris, the National Milk Producers Federation’s Senior Vice President for Trade Policy. They’ll tell us just what’s at stake here for everyone in US dairy. Thanks to you both for being here.
Shawna Morris: Thanks for having me.
John Umhoefer: Thank you.
Alan Bjerga: John. Let’s start with you. Tell us a little bit about the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association and your role as executive director. What are some of your organization’s goals?
John Umhoefer: Well, we’ve been around as an association since 1893, and the original goal remains true today. It started as a quality organization, an organization fighting against inferior products, and even had to do with export back then, way back in the 1800s. We were looking to export cheese to England and the cheese makers that formed the association wanted only the highest quality cheeses, they wanted to have licensed cheese makers, licensed dairy factories, and that continues today. We are an organization built around trying to improve the education and quality of products in the industry so that we can sell worldwide.
Alan Bjerga: And how big are you in the US? How large is your footprint?
John Umhoefer: Well, we’ve got a larger footprint than our name implies. Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association has members in 36 states actually. We’ve got 118 different dairy processing companies with hundreds of dairy facilities all over the country. And they’ve really joined because we have opportunities for them to train, to get certifications and to do things to improve their businesses.
Alan Bjerga: That would also seem to imply that this isn’t just a Wisconsin issue. This is nationwide.
John Umhoefer: Oh, absolutely. When you talk about what has happened with the EU shutting down cheese names, clawing back cheese names, that affects Cheese makers from California to Wisconsin to New York. Absolutely.
Alan Bjerga: Shawna, John just outlined a lot of challenges and goals and one of the obstacles to those goals, as he noted would be European Union policies. We’ve seen the EU over the last decade become more aggressive in trying to monopolize these common cheese names. We’re talking words like, Parmesan, feta. How does the European Union manage to confiscate generic terms that have been in the public domain for generations?
Shawna Morris: It’s really not about a system designed to protect unique names anymore, where the challenges really are. And so much of the European Union’s focus that we’ve seen lately has really been in stifling competition, which is why we see EU regulations blocking these widely used terms like Parmesan, like feta and other products. Not just in the EU though through EU regulations, but using their free trade agreements and other international treaties to effectively export those restrictions on common names to various markets around the world. These EUFTAs with other countries, for instance, will include express language that directly bans the ability of US exporters to accurately label a product and call it feta, for instance, when they’re exporting to Japan or South Korea. It’s a huge and continuously growing problem for our exporters that are working so hard to compete on quality and on a level playing field around the world.
Alan Bjerga: And John, what effect does this campaign that Shawna is describing have on your cheese makers nationwide and the farmers who supply them?
John Umhoefer: It’s an infuriating effect. They’re, in the EU, are taking words away from us. They’re taking words away from other countries, New Zealand, United States. Our dairy farmers here in Wisconsin and other states, we can’t go to Europe and sell a Parmesan cheese. We can’t go to Europe and sell a cheese called feta. It’s infuriating because those names are used worldwide and the cheeses are produced worldwide. But the EU has put up walls using a system that was designed to protect little cheeses made in little regions. And no one wants to step on a little cheese from a little region, but to say for example, Greece said the word feta can only be used with cheese made in Greece. Nowhere else. And the little area we’re protecting is the entire nation of Greece, every square inch. So it’s become political. A nice program that they had has become political and they’re using it as a bludgeon to keep out competition.
Alan Bjerga: And this becomes a battle that’s fought on several fronts. And one of them is the legal arena. Shawna, there was a US federal court ruling in April that was significant in this issue. It upheld the generic nature of Gruyère in the United States. What precedent does this ruling set in the US, and how could this affect further EU attempts to trademark common names here at home?
Shawna Morris: So in the US market, one of the key important elements of the positive ruling that the Consortium for Common Food names was able to secure on preserving Gruyère as a generic term is the fact that the system worked as it should. There were many US cheese makers using this term broadly to describe a type of cheese, a number of their buyers downstream that were likewise relying on the ability to use this term to communicate with consumers. We were able to present that evidence, which multiple courts found to be frankly overwhelming before the judges considering this case. And time after time, the courts found that Gruyère is a generic term.
Looking forward in terms of what this means for other products, it makes it all the more difficult having established a really strong fact pattern on a product like Gruyère for Europeans to come in and try to apply for trademarks for other generic cheeses. They’d need to get past the type of precedent that we just established on Gruyère saying, “Look, if you have imports from other countries, if you have widespread use in grocery stores, you have indications of online evidence of generic use taken together, all of that helps shape and determine whether this is generic or not.” And what was true for Gruyère is just as true for a number of the other common names that our industry relies on and uses on a regular basis.
Looking overseas, the fact that the US system was able to come to the logical conclusion here is really important because so much of this issue is playing out in these other countries, and we worked together with the US Patent and Trademark Office and many of them to have them serve as a valuable advocate for the need to preserve genetic use.
Alan Bjerga: Another area, legislative front. The bipartisan Safeguarding American Value-Added Exports, that’s called the SAVE Act was introduced last month. That would direct the US government to take further steps to protect common names. What’s in the legislation, Shawna? And John, how would this help the cheese makers?
Shawna Morris: So the legislation would do three key things. First, it would direct the US Department of Agriculture to put together a list of common names informed by some criteria outlined in the legislation.
Number two, it would define restrictions of those by our trading partners as unfair trading practices. So making it explicitly clear that when these are blocked, that directly has a negative impact on US exports and has not been accepted practice.
And then number three is the key upshot of it, the so what? So it directs USDA to work together with the US Trade Representative’s office to go out and negotiate on this challenge to directly engage with other countries around the world to secure protections for the use of those names by our exporters. This is something that frankly is overdue. We’ve unfortunately had to live through multiple past administrations on both sides of the aisle that didn’t take on this issue firmly enough, that simply gave the Europeans a pass really and didn’t come to dealing with it as aggressively as they needed to to effectively preserve US market access. That’s why we’re at a really important point in time right now with the need for action, both by Congress and as legislation and by the administration at the same time to insist on preserving US export access rights.
John Umhoefer: Cheese makers around the country are really thrilled to see this legislation. It’s a long time coming, basically it’s trying to enlist the government in the fight to win back our right to use cheese names around the world. That fight has been led by National Milk Producers Federation and their Consortium for Common Food Names with help from groups like ours. But a long battle really at the industry level for what’s fair and right. And now this bill enlists the federal government to say, “We’re joining that fight and when we’re negotiating a trade agreement, these are what’s on the table. You can’t take these cheese names away from us.” And that’s what we need as an industry. We need the full weight of the federal government fighting for us and fighting for dairy farmers. It’s their milk. We need the whole industry backed by the government fighting for what’s right, fighting for the ability to use cheese names that people have been using for decades.
Alan Bjerga: Anything else our listeners should know today?
John Umhoefer: I’d like to add that as we talk about this, during those decades where we’ve been fighting for what’s right, we’ve been winning as an industry competitions in Europe and in the Far East and in New Zealand, Australia. We’ve been winning awards, gold medals as US cheese all around the world. And I believe that a great deal of this issue is the EU’s recognizing that America is making excellent cheese, cheese on par with or better than their own. And perhaps that wasn’t the case 40 years ago, but now we’re a true competitor and they’re using this tool to try to keep us out of markets because we make darn good cheese in the United States
Shawna Morris: For my end, I’d just say first a thank you to John. Our partnership and work together with Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association with the number of your members has been invaluable to what the Consortium for Common Food Names is able to do both here at home and around the world. And then the last thing I’d want to mention to our listeners is just calling out how they can support this effort. So the two companion bills tackling this legislation are Senate Bill 1652 and House Bill 3423. So if you like what you heard here, you think that the government really needs to up its game here in terms of how it’s tackling this problem for our exports, please call your Senate and House offices and urge them to co-sponsor this legislation.
Alan Bjerga: We’ve been speaking today with John Umhoefer, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, representing Wisconsin and so much more with 36 states and numerous plants. And Shawna Morris, Senior Vice President for Trade with the National Milk Producers Federation here in Washington, DC. Thank you for joining us.
John Umhoefer: Thank you very much.
Alan Bjerga: To learn more about NMPF’s efforts on common cheese names, visit our website, nmpf.org, and to learn more about the Consortium for Common Food Names, go to commonfoodnames.com. For more of the Dairy Defined Podcast, you can find and subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and Amazon Music under the name Dairy Defined. We’ll talk again soon.