Wheel of Fortune

Will a change in the way America names its cheeses hurt sales?

cheeeeeeeeeeeeeese (Photo: shelleylyn)

If you were to ask a random American what he or she thinks about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), it’s safe to bet they wouldn’t have much to say. The European Union-United States trade deal, first floated in 2013, makes the news on a near-daily basis across the pond. However, whether because the US has been so opaque on the details of ongoing negotiations, or because many of the issues involved feel abstract from daily life, many Americans don’t even know what the TTIP is.

And yet, deep within the bowels of the treaty, there’s one clause that could have a profound effect on everyday American life — by making it illegal for US cheese makers to use common names rooted in regional European culinary traditions like feta, muenster, or parmesan. EU negotiators are serious enough about this that it’s had the US dairy world in a tizzy for two years, underscoring how attached our cheese culture is, both emotionally and financially, to its (often only name-deep) European heritage.

One clause [could make] it illegal for US cheese makers to use common names rooted in regional European culinary traditions like feta, muenster, or parmesan.

This provision is just the latest in a long crusade by traditional European cheese makers against the willy-nilly usage of their region’s dairy terms by foreigners. In the early 20th century, some European states blocked the importation of foreign products using their names, hoping to protect the integrity of their culinary heritage. Predictably, France was among the first to implement a cohesive system of cultural protections for their cheeses, limiting the use of the name Roquefort in 1925. But other nations like Greece, historically less litigiously finicky about their food, jumped on the boat as well. Starting in the 1930s, you couldn’t sell brined goat or sheep’s cheese under the name “feta” in Greece unless it was verifiably made in specific regions of that nation using exact ratios of sheep’s milk to goat’s milk.

Maybe feta, maybe not! (Image: Stacy Spensley

In 1992, the EU picked up these precedents and codified a “Protected Designation of Origin” system to judge which names, tied to traditional regions and modes of production, ought to be protected throughout the Union. It was a move geared towards protecting the flavor integrity and economic viability of traditional products. To wit, after the EU embraced Greece’s claim that feta was a distinct regional product in 2005, other European feta makers weren’t just barred from selling their products in Greece. They also could no longer call their cheeses feta in total — to the chagrin of British, Danish, and German producers who’d long dominated the EU market with cow’s milk feta and to the benefit of poor cheese makers in the rural Greek mountains.

Since then, the EU has slapped these protections onto about 180 cheeses, including Asiagos, Bries, Camemberts, Gorgonzolas, Goudas, Gruyeres, Manchegos, and Provolones. EU officials have been so pleased with the benefits of these cultural protections, building the exclusivity and thus brand strength and profitability of cheeses on the continent, that they’ve sought to extend them across the world via trade treaties, including one finalized between the EU and Canada in the summer of 2014, which is currently just awaiting implementation.

Mmmmmmmuenster! (Image: bl0ndeeo2)

In early 2014, American cheese makers realized Europe’s push to extend the frontiers of their cultural protection regime included the TTIP and freaked out. According to Massimo Vittori, managing director of the Geneva-based pro-cultural protection group oriGIn, at least 70 cheese names that most Americans consider generic conflict with European restrictions. American cheese makers, from industry powerhouses like Kraft-Heinz to Midwestern craft producers, say they’ve spent decades and gobs of cash developing brands built on these generic names — just think about every tube of grated white stuff in the refrigerated aisle of your grocery store you associate with parmesan or every deli slice you associate with muenster.

At least 70 cheese names that most Americans consider generic conflict with European restrictions.

Some claim American producers and marketers actually built the international reputation of and demand for European-heritage cheeses that EU producers now want to leverage through cultural protections. They fear that, if they’re forced to start calling their products brined cow’s milk cheese instead of feta or parmesan-style hard cheese instead of parmesan, they’ll lose global market recognition—they’ll seem cut-rate. No one I spoke to in the US cheese industry could put a figure on it, but they all suspect this would take a fair chunk out of the multi-billion dollar industry, jeopardizing the well-being of many dairy farmers and manufacturers at home for the benefit of small pockets of farmers and producers abroad.

Naturally, a bipartisan group of 55 senators attempted to protest the provision — because cheese is perhaps the one thing that can unite this nation, even today. And the US has officially pushed back, arguing that EU producers can just file trademark applications for protection in the US. Just like under the EU’s system, this would prevent people other than the trademark holders or licensed users from labeling their cheese with specific names in America. However we don’t issue trademarks for names we consider too generic, like parmesan, which Americans have long used as a general term for a hard white cheese.

Shawna Morris, who handles trade policy for the National Milk Producers Federation and US Dairy Export Council, points out that a number of European cheeses included on the list for protection, like Roquefort or Parmigiano-Reggiano already have trademarks. But for Europeans that’s not enough; the trademark for Parmigiano-Reggiano doesn’t extend to parmesan, which to them is a synonym, not a generic genus term.

Parmigiano-Reggiano, the real deal. (Image: Matt Lewis)

“If the [European negotiators] spent as much time and effort helping [producers] simply register their names through the existing system as they have in trying to impose new restrictions in the US market,” Morris said, “their goal of greater protection for EU terms would have already been achieved. It’s a shame, really, because [they] continue to adamantly refuse to acknowledge that it is actually US producers who face genuine trade barriers in this context. It’s US companies that cannot sell asiago or feta to the EU and increasingly to a number of other global markets, directly as a result of inappropriately broad EU… policies.”

Despite staunch pushback and accusations that the EU’s bid goes beyond protecting its farmers and moves into an overreaching protectionist assault on American dairy, the EU has stood strong; 201 of Europe’s over 1,300 cultural food protections show up in papers from TTIP negotiations this spring, 78 of which are cheeses. Just last month, an event hosted by the EU included a session on the importance of global recognition of these protections for the security of regional agriculture within the bloc, which used cheese as a key example.

It’s a stubborn position born of a firm conviction that generic American cheeses, no matter how long they’ve used the terms or how many dollars they’ve sunk into branding, are clearly just piggybacking on the haute reputation of their classier European kin. That’s not always the case — as Morris points out, some American cheeses have won international awards going head to head with EU-made counterparts — like BelGioioso Parmesan, which took first in class in global competitions in 1986, 2010, and 2012. But Europeans do have a point that many American parmesans taste nothing like their continental equivalents, because they use ingredients Italians would consider unholy—like cellulose powder and potassium sorbate—and then market themselves using Italian imagery or oblique references to the quality and story of Parmigiano-Reggiano.

The same could be said of American fetas, which may be part of our heritage through southern European immigration, but which cannot truly mimic traditional tastes due to federal regulations on US cheese production and the usage of non-traditional materials like cow’s milk instead of sheep’s and goat’s milk in many offerings. Even if we popularized the terms and sometimes do credit to their heritage, that doesn’t mean we don’t also often irresponsibly capitalize on and detrimentally bastardize that heritage.

Many on the European side have tried to convince the US industry that the TTIP is an opportunity to build strong local brands, which could be more profitable in the end. OriGIn’s Vittori points out that a similar deal in Australia killed its dependence on “generic” wine names rooted in European heritage, like Chablis or Champagne, which folks in the know realize are tied to specific regions in France, but which many firms in Australia at the time (and in America now) used to up their class factor and sales. In the aftermath, Australian vintners created wildly successful narratives of local wine region-brands like Barossa Valley or Margaret River. Vittori thinks there are at least 500 products that the US could create culturally distinct and protected titles for, including many cheeses, giving a massive boost to local producers offsetting any damage the recognition of European protections might do.

“From the marketing perspective,” he told me, “more and more consumers are looking for authenticity…leveraging specific characteristics of place.” Already, producers of US cheeses like Grayson, Hooligan, and Humboldt Fog have drawn on their location or unique processes and ingredients to establish popular and profitable American brands.

Vittori hasn’t, he admitted, found much traction with this narrative. “We have a good dialogue,” he said, “but as far as I understand, the [US] position remains quite skeptical.” That’s mainly because local cheese makers can easily point to the pain their European counterparts say forced name changes caused them, or the trouble Kraft-Heinz faced when, in 2008, it was finally forced to rename its parmesan “pamesello” in the EU, as proof that these restrictions are just painful trade barriers designed as political tools to hurt viable and large-scale American producers.

“local cheese makers can easily point to the pain their European counterparts say forced name changes caused them”

US producers seem to be so convinced that this potential forced name change is a fundamental injustice, violating the values of free trade and fair usage, that no one I talked to was aware of any efforts to come up with contingency plans for rebranding or repositioning. Instead, explained Doug DiMento of the Northeast’s Cabot Creamery Cooperative, “we’re simply trying to fight.” The industry has formed an entire lobbying group, the Consortium for Common Food Names (whose media outreach Morris runs), to push back on European cultural protections in the TTIP.

Chances are the entire TTIP deal is not going to freeze over a debate on the rightful usage of the term parmesan. So, given how entrenched the US position is, it’s likely we’ll see some kind of compromise. Vittori has floated the idea of allowing the US to use names we consider generic under certain conditions, such as not associating our parmesan with Italian cultural symbols; maybe we could make hyphenated American-X cheeses, making it clear there are differences between traditional European cheeses and their fine American cousins. The details of those compromises would have to be hashed out by producers on both sides of the Atlantic, though.

In truth, it’d probably be good for US producers to move away from explicit callbacks to our European heritage, as a matter of pride in our local products, a move in the direction of US food trends that privilege a clear and local provenance, and a means of allowing consumers to better understand what they’re buying — something the US historically sucks at.

It’d probably be good for US producers to move away from explicit callbacks to our European heritage.

Renaming our cheeses, say, Oregon cow feta or something totally novel doesn’t seem so bad. But the fact that a multinational trade conflict has spun out of cheese name usage rights says something about the perceived value of an established brand — and the abject fear the prospect of a forced change can inspire. This obscure trade deal about which so few of us give a shit has the potential to make us more food-conscious consumers and benefit local brands and producers. It also has the potential to put a dent in the US dairy industry. Either way, it’s a conversation we’re going to have.