EU poised to ban US use of cheese names in trade deal

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 March, 2014, 9:10pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 March, 2014, 9:10pm


As part of trade talks, the European Union wants to ban the use of European names such as Parmesan, feta and Gorgonzola on cheeses made in the US.

The argument is that the American-made cheeses are mere shadows of the original European varieties and hurt sales and identity of the European originals.

The Europeans say Parmesan should come only from Parma, Italy. Feta should only be from Greece, even though feta isn't a place. The EU argues it "is so closely connected to Greece as to be identified as an inherently Greek product".

United States dairy producers, cheesemakers and food companies are all fighting the idea, which they say could hurt the US$4 billion domestic cheese industry and confuse consumers.

"It's really stunning that the Europeans are trying to claw back products made popular in other countries," said Jim Mulhern, who is president of the National Milk Producers Federation, which represents US dairy farmers.

The European Union would not say exactly what it was proposing or even whether it would be discussed this week as a new round of talks on a free trade agreement opens in Brussels.

European Commission spokesman Roger Waite would say only that the question "is an important issue for the EU".

That was made clear from recent agreements with Canada and Central America, where certain cheese names were restricted unless the cheese came from Europe.

Under the Canadian agreement, for example, new feta products manufactured in Canada can be marketed only as feta-like or feta-style, and they can't use Greek letters or other symbols that evoke Greece.

Although it has not laid out a public proposal, the EU is expected to make similar attempts to restrict marketing of US-made cheeses, possibly including Parmesan, Asiago, Gorgonzola, feta, fontina, grana, Muenster, Neufchatel and Romano.

And it may not be just cheese. Other products could include bologna, Black Forest ham, Greek yogurt, Valencia oranges and prosciutto, among other foods to be targeted.

The trade negotiations are important for the EU as Europe has tried to protect its share of agricultural exports and pull itself out of recession.

The ability to exclusively sell some of the continent's most famous and traditional products would prevent others from cutting into those markets.

Concerned about the possible impact of changing the labels on those popular foods, a bipartisan group of 55 US senators wrote to US Trade Representative Michael Froman and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack this week asking them not to agree to any such proposals by the EU.

Large food companies that mass-produce the cheeses are also fighting the idea.

Kraft, which has long been closely identified with its grated Parmesan cheese, says the names have long been considered generic in the US.

"Such restrictions could not only be costly to food makers, but also potentially confusing for consumers if the labels of their favourite products using these generic names were required to change," Kraft spokesman Basil Maglaris said.