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Cheese Name Debates Between the US and EU

Town of Camembert in France

As the United States has entered into free trade agreement-related discussions recently with the European Union, there’s been a significant uproar over European proposals to eliminate usage of certain cheese-identifying terms in the States. We’re talking about terms like “Brie,” which Americans use liberally to refer to any soft-ripened cheese, “Gouda” to identify all sorts of hard or semi-hard cheese/cheese products, and “Parmesan” to refer to the grated stuff in the can.

The Europeans are raising all this fuss over a type of intellectual property called “Geographical Indications,” or “GIs” for short. That legal area doesn’t really manifest itself in the US—the closest thing we’ve got is trademark law. There are some agricultural products associated with certain geographical areas like “Florida Oranges” or “Washington Apples,” but there aren’t any stringent regulations on what exactly constitutes a “Florida orange.” In contrast, in Europe, these GIs are often strictly regulated.

In France, for instance, for a cheese to earn the Appelation d’Origine Protégée (AOP) label of “Camembert,” it must be made in a precisely defined region in Normandy (there’s a list of each individual town in this region). The cows must be Normandy cows kept under specific circumstances (e.g., they must be pastured at least 6 months a year and the pastures must be of a certain size, depending on the herd), and dairy farmers are required to keep stringent records of each cow in her herd, subject to review. The cheese itself must meet strict production, physical, and gustatory standards. The milk must be raw. Since it’s aged only 21 days, before the 60-day raw milk aging minimum imposed by the US, we can’t buy true Camembert in the States. Let’s pretend that we could, though, and that consumers could encounter AOP Camembert and any old soft-ripened cheese labeled “camembert” in stores. From a consumer’s perspective, seeing an AOP label cheese sends unambiguous signals that the cheese will meet specific quality, taste, and texture standards. It’s a lot like branding. For instance, when you go have lunch at McDonald’s, you are going to expect a certain quality and experience because you know the McDonald’s brand. Same thing with these AOP cheeses—if you buy a Camembert, you know how the animals were raised, what the cheese looks and tastes like, and where it’s from. With this kind of quality guarantee, the Camembert can also be sold at a premium over another non-AOP cheese (which, by the way, MIGHT be delicious. You just don’t know from the labels alone).

Things are different in the States. There’s no Designated Protection of Origin (DPO) regime. On the contrary, there’s an abundance of creativity in cheese names and styles—think Humboldt Fog, Wabash Cannonball, Tarentaise. There are, however, lots of those strictly protected European terms that have become generic terms in the States—“parmesan,” “brie,” “feta,” “gouda.” As a result, all sorts of cheeses and “cheese products” are sold with these descriptors. Consequently, consumers, faced with a non-AOP “camembert” and an AOP Camembert can’t always tell what kind of qualities to expect based on labels alone. Or, in the case of Camembert, because true Camembert can’t be sold in the States, consumers are more likely to associate some less tasty cheese with the name “camembert” without having ever tasted the real, certified, deal. That’s a big problem when the European agricultural industries have so painstakingly worked to identify, label, and protect their cheese making traditions.

In some ways, the goals behind GIs are similar to those of trademark law. All around the world, businesses use their trademarks, such as logos, words, images, smells, sounds, symbols, etc. as a sort of business signature when communicating with consumers. People learn to recognize a company’s trademarks and identify certain qualities and values with the company. However, in the case of GIs, we’re talking about something broader – traditional food production – part of the larger scheme of traditional cultural expressions (which also includes traditional medicine, folk songs, traditional craftsmanship, rituals, crafts, and a whole lot more). Cheese producers in Europe want consumers to recognize the qualities of their cheeses based on labeling. Currently, some cheeses sold in the US are riding on the goodwill established by their European counterparts.

I’m sorry to say, the US doesn’t seem to be a great proponent of traditional cultural expressions in general, so I’m not surprised that they’re not warming to this cheese labeling debate. But I do think the US should be more sensitive to these issues. This debate isn’t new; The Europeans have been fighting mighty hard for a long time to protect these terms and others.

For me, the well-defined DPO cases are where I most easily swing in favor of the Europeans. But what about non-DPO words, like “gouda” or “cheddar”? Currently, I’m going to have to side with the US. It’s just impossible to enforce something that’s not defined, or defined only by local customs. However, if Gouda does eventually gain DPO protection, then, I think North Americans should respect that and refrain from using the word. If the US ever develops a DPO regime, it would reasonable to ask for the Europeans to respect it as well. That way, we’d get move closer to more transparent labeling for everyone!

Practically, what would our cheese landscape look like if the US did agree to curb use of these words? Cheese companies would have to come up with some new names for some of their products. Good luck trying to get everyone to agree on generic terms right off the bat. They’d be better off using some creativity to give their cheese names some individuality. It would be costly to reeducate the public about a whole cheese vocabulary. Very. It would take a lot of time. It might not even work. People might cling to the terms they know. But if it were successful, there would be no confusion about the differences between Parmigiano-Reggiano and “parmesan” cheeses, where they come from, what they taste like.

The alternative is what we have today. I think sometimes cheese appreciation is lost in a lot of cases because people have come to associate poor “cheese product” substitutes with real cheese.  Especially now that momentum seems to be building for more transparency in food production, the fact that cheese labeling and “cheese product” production is so unclear and acceptable surprises me.

Do the costs of implementing such a change in our cheese labeling outweigh the benefits? What benefits are there to American consumers? To American cheese companies? For now, the US is deciding that the costs of the change outweigh benefits. In the short term, costs would indeed be high as everyone transitioned. But in the long run, it could be a chance for the American cheese scene to redefine itself, quite literally, in developing a truly independent, vibrant lexicon.

Share your thoughts and comments below!

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