If negotiators for the European Union have their way, shoppers in the United States may need to familiarize themselves with a host of new names for such common cheeses as feta and Gorgonzola. While large cheese-makers are battling the proposed restriction, many of Maine’s cheese-makers already respect their Old World brethren’s claim and market their cheese with other names.
At issue is whether EU cheese-makers have the right to protect the names of their specialty cheeses from being marketed in the United States as Parmesan, Roquefort, Gorgonzola, Gruyère and other easily recognized names. These are also called “geographical indications,” or GIs.
The labeling issue is being discussed by trade representatives negotiating the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, the next summit of which is planned for May. The U.S. dairy industry is strongly opposing the restriction, but Maine’s artisanal cheese-makers are surprisingly considerate of the Europeans’ position.
“I completely agree with the Europeans that we should not use their cheese names. They have spent centuries developing their distinctive regional styles, and we should not steal them, or try to reproduce them,” Caitlin Hunter, head cheese-maker at Appleton Creamery, a small creamery outside Camden, said in an email.
Hunter creates unique names for all her cheeses. Even if it would be easier to call her bloomy rind soft cheese a Camembert, she believes only cheese made in Normandy, France, from the milk of Normand cows who ate Normand grass should be called Camembert. Instead, she calls it “Camdenbert.”
“It’s all about the taste of place – terroir – and I want my customers to taste the milks and cheeses of Maine, not Europe,” she said.
Heather Donahue, head cheese-maker at Balfour Farm in Pittsfield, agreed that names of some traditional cheese styles should be reserved for European producers. But when she heard the EU would also like to restrict the use of the term “feta,” which is a Greek cheese not tied to any particular region of that Mediterranean country, she had another opinion.
“Not cool,” she said last week after making a batch of feta, which she and her husband sell at farmers markets around the state.
Terms like “feta” are so generic at this point they shouldn’t be restricted, Donahue said. “There’s a difference between a very specific cheese and a style of cheese (such as feta),” she said.
Descriptions like “feta” help cheese-makers market their products to new customers, who are more willing to buy an artisanal cheese if it’s called something familiar, Donahue said.
“It makes it easier for the seller and the customer if there’s a common language of cheese terms to use,” she said. “If a customer is familiar with feta from the grocery store and they buy the same brand all the time and happen to come to a farmers market, you can say this is a feta-style cheese and they’ll get it.”
Roger Waite, an EU spokesman, said the proposed restrictions are about protecting traditional European producers who are preserving an ages-old heritage of cheese-making.
“We have seen a wide range of European products build up excellent reputations on the basis of quality, traditions, regional products and savoir faire,” Waite said in an email. “What the EU is seeking with the system of GIs is that consumers are not misled, or that others free-ride on the good reputation developed by the producers of the original product.”
Maine is a hotbed of artisanal cheese-making. With roughly 73 licensed cheese-makers, Maine has more of them than any state except New York, said Eric Rector, executive director of the Maine Cheese Guild and owner of the Monroe Cheese Studio. Maine’s cheese-makers, however, only produce about 1 million pounds of cheese a year, which is the annual production of any one of Wisconsin’s giant cheese-makers, Rector said.
Tyler Renaud, a cheese-maker at Silvery Moon Creamery in Westbrook, said that although renaming cheeses is doable, it does create more work for marketing products.
“If it comes down to it … it will take a huge amount of consumer education when we do rename them,” he said. “People recognize the (common labels), and the second you put a different name on it, you have a cheese you need to educate your customer base on.”
At the root of the controversy is who determines what is generic. Some argue that Parmesan should only come from Parma, Italy, while others argue the term has become generic (think Kraft Foods and its ubiquitous green, cylindrical Parmesan containers) and shouldn’t be restricted.
The EU has had some success in negotiating trade restrictions on common cheese names with other countries. In its trade deal with South Korea, for example, the EU secured restrictions on the use of the names asiago, feta, fontina and Gorgonzola unless they were produced by traditional cheese-makers in Europe. The deal also meant that any U.S. cheese-makers that export feta, for example, to South Korea can no longer do so using that name.
Last year, the EU negotiated a deal with Canada, although it has yet to be finalized. Canada agreed to place restrictions on its cheese-makers who make feta. Existing cheese-makers are “grandfathered,” but any new cheese-makers have to use terms such as “feta-like” or “feta-style.”
The EU, however, isn’t fighting to restrict use of the terms “Camembert” and “Brie,” which Waite conceded are generic by this point.
A group of U.S. senators, including Sen. Angus King, last month sent a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman stating their opposition to the EU’s proposal and urging U.S. negotiators to “work aggressively” to counter it. The U.S. Dairy Export Council estimates that production of roughly $4.2 billion worth of cheese by U.S. companies could be affected if the EU is successful.
Trevor Kincaid, a spokesman for the U.S. Trade Representative’s office, wouldn’t confirm specific demands by the EU, but did say the U.S. does not agree with the EU’s position on traditional cheese names.
“The United States and the EU have different points of view over the scope and level of intellectual property protection to be provided for products like cheese, including trademarks and the use of generic food terms that are used commonly by businesses and the public,” he said in a prepared statement. “Our conversations are in the early stages, but we are committed to increasing opportunity for U.S. businesses, farmers and workers through trade.”
Rector believes Maine cheese-makers are empathetic toward their European brethren because of similarities protecting the Maine lobster brand or Maine blueberries. Donahue, at Balfour Farm, does make a Brie-like cheese, but calls it Marcy. Hunter, at Appleton Creamery, makes her Camdenbert. Silvery Moon Creamery makes a style of cheese based on a Manchego, but calls it Moonchego.
“After all, Gouda, Brie, Parmesan, Camembert and many other protected cheese names actually refer to a geographic region, the same way that ‘Maine’ does when used to modify ‘maple syrup,’ ‘lobster,’ ‘blueberries,’ ‘potatoes,’ etc.,” Rector said in an email. “The use of those terms in the name of a product made outside the region defies logic.”
“Wasn’t ‘champagne’ once a generic name for sparkling wine from any producer at one time? Now that U.S. sparkling wine producers have stopped using that name for their products, have they really been harmed because they can’t use that protected name? I don’t think so,” Rector said. “Consumers now understand that Champagne is a sparkling wine from a specific region in France made in a specific manner, and other sparkling wines are not made in Champagne that way.
“Why would feta and Parmesan be any different?” he said. “You say ‘generic term’ and I say ‘lazy marketer.’ ”
Whit Richardson can be contacted at 791-6463 or at: