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Too Much of a Good Thing

June 1, 2015

When she said that “too much of a good thing can be wonderful,” Mae West might have been referring to food and wine…or perhaps other earthly pleasures.  But she certainly didn’t have in mind what some Europeans are attempting to do with the names of some foods, including many cheeses: corrupting the legitimate concept of tying a food product to its place of origin, by distorting that notion in a way that hurts both consumers and food producers.

NMPF, the U.S. Dairy Export Council and the Consortium for Common Food Names have been sounding the alarm bells for several years about how the European Union – and it’s mainly just a subset of food companies and countries within Europe – want to restrict trade by monopolizing common foods names for their exclusive use.

I spent a week in May traveling to Brussels, Berlin and Dublin to deliver the message to a variety of EU policymakers and dairy stakeholders that these efforts to bastardize the concept of geographic indicators are indeed a very bad thing.  If pursued by the EU’s trade negotiators, this effort will doom the prospects for a U.S.-EU Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.  This blatantly anti-competitive approach is something that America’s policymakers just won’t swallow.

Another important message to make clear was that, from the U.S. perspective, some use of geographic indicators can be beneficial…in moderation. We have no issue with specific names for foods from specific regions, the best examples being Parmigiano Reggiano in Italy, or Holsteiner Tilsit in Germany.  These compound names refer to a specific cheese type, from a specific region.  And consumers know well the difference when they are buying a Parmigiano Reggiano versus an American parmesan cheese.

But the legitimate use of compound names is very different than restricting the use of common, generic names, including parmesan, feta, asiago and havarti – just four examples where the EU has been fighting hard to monopolize these names for some member states (even though feta and havarti do not refer to any city or region in the world, let alone a region of Europe).

When food names have long been in the public domain, as has “parmesan,” it is completely inappropriate for government trade regulations in the 21st century to summarily remove the ability of cheesemakers outside of Italy to use such a name.  Already, the U.S. is not permitted to sell in Europe parmesan, muenster, feta or several other common cheese types, due to the EU’s decision to permit only certain member states to use these product names.  Additionally, the EU has negotiated trade deals with other countries that restrict the marketing of cheeses with these names, even if these are American-made cheeses that were not part of the bilateral agreement made between the EU and another nation.

The Europeans have suggested generating a list of names that we in the U.S. would agree to allow them to keep for themselves (and it includes meats and wines, not just cheeses).  But this is a non-starter. It is an attempt to legitimize a completely illegitimate name-grabbing scheme.  We already have a system that works: the compounding of a specific locale with a generic name, in order to provide a clear place of origin definition, is appropriate. But to say parmesan, asiago, muenster, feta or gorgonzola are the sole purview of a particular country or area is simply wrong, in any language.

Major trade deals like the TTIP involve lengthy negotiations, because they will have decades-long implications for commerce between our nations.  As always, the Europeans are playing the long game here, realizing that in the globalized future, dairy is a growing market with big opportunities. Clawing back geographic indications for their foods is Europe’s attempt to forestall competition with the U.S., and other New World countries, in the global market.

But we are in this for the long haul, too. Therefore, if an agreement is to be reached on GIs, it needs to include a suitable model for protecting both legitimate geographical indications, while protecting the broader use of generic food names. If there is to be an eventual U.S.-EU free trade agreement, it must be one in which European consumers have the opportunity to buy a Wisconsin Asiago, just as American consumers have long been able to buy a Parmigiano Reggiano.

There is the possibility of a reasonable outcome here, but not if the pursuit of too much of a good thing becomes the enemy of a fair and balanced approach.