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Hypocrisy in the EU Cheese Name Debate?

powdered parmesan in jar atop wooden cutting board with handle

As the debate over international utilization of European cheese names surges on, Michael Punke, the U.S. deputy trade representative and the ambassador to the World Trade Organization, recently pointed out a flaw in the European argument. In case you need a refresher, when the United States entered into free trade agreement-related discussions several months ago with the European Union, there was significant uproar over European proposals to eliminate usage of certain cheese-identifying terms in the States — 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. While there were many Americans that agreed with the EU (we were definitely on board when it came to shakable “parmesan”), it turns out the Europeans themselves may not be using their cheese names as they’d like folks in the US to. During a trade hearing this past Wednesday, Ron Kind, a Democratic Representative from Wisconsin, asked Michael Punke whether geographic indicators — the name of a product connected with a specific place — would be a deal-breaker in considering the trade deal with the EU. Punke replied with:

 “…This will be of interest to you, I think, congressman, and that is I’ve discovered the phenomena of something called German feta cheese. And I’ve also discovered the phenomena of something called French Gruyere. And I’m not an expert on cheese the way that people from your state might be, but I do know that Gruyere is not in France. And so that’s the type of anomaly that we’re pointing out to our European colleagues in trying to address this issue of geographic indications in the context.”

In 2012, Switzerland allowed France to use the title of Gruyere, under a few conditions. French Gruyere must have holes in the cheese between the size of a pea and a cherry in order to distinguish it from the classic, centuries-old Swiss Gruyere. As the debate continues, perhaps Europe will be as flexible with the United States as it has been with its own countries. 

Photo by Well Preserved

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