NPR

Europe Tells U.S. To Lay Off Brie And Get Its Own Cheese Names

What's in a name? It's an age-old question Juliet once asked Romeo in Shakespeare's famed play.

Today, it's a serious question between the U.S. and the European Union, which has said it wants U.S. food makers to stop using European names.

But depending on what food you're talking about, a name could be a lot, says Kyle Cherek, the producer and host of a TV show called Wisconsin Foodie.

Cherek argues that certain products are so unique that only one country or region should be allowed to lay claim. So, for example, he says only onions from Vidalia, Ga., should be called American Vidalia, and Lambic beer absolutely has to come from a specific valley in Belgium.

"Roquefort, of course, has to come from that region" of France, he adds, because there's a distinctive fungus that gives the cheese its flavor.

But not everything fits into that category. Take, for instance, cheddar cheese — which is big business in Wisconsin.

"They simply can't legislate that into a region," Cherek says. "Cheddar is made in Australia, in the U.S., in Canada. It's made in probably seven or eight countries."

And therein lies the problem.

As part of negotiations over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, the European Union wants the U.S. to prohibit food makers here from using names with historical ties to Europe.

That means popular cheeses like Gruyere, Brie and Parmesan could all be in line for a name change, thanks to the EU's proposed restrictions. The problem, says Steve Stettler, who owns Decatur Dairy in Brodhead, Wis., is that U.S. food makers have spent a lot of money building their brands.

"How do we educate our consumers? People have spent a great deal of money on labeling, building traditions, building a name on a product," Stettler says. "And then not being able to use that name would be kind of horrific."

His factory, located 100 miles from Milwaukee, currently makes a variety of cheeses, including Havarti, Swiss and Gouda. Right now, there's a 35,000-pound stainless steel vat full of liquid Muenster cheese — whose name may also have to be changed because it originates from France's Valley of Muenster — in the process of changing to a solid.

Since the EU started putting restrictions on food names in the mid-1990s, they've spread to other countries, says Shawna Morris of the U.S. Dairy Export Council.

A couple of years ago, she notes, a free trade agreement between the EU and South Korea "banned the sale of U.S. feta, Asiago, Gorgonzola and fontina to Korea."

Morris says Costa Rica recently decided against allowing the sale of American provolone and Parmesan, and South and Central America have similar restrictions.

She argues that it's less about civic pride, and more about competition.

"Actually, just last year, the U.S. became the largest single country exporter of cheese in the world," she says.

And nearly a quarter of all cheese produced in the U.S. comes from Wisconsin.

Even if the state's producers are eventually barred from using European-derived names for their cheeses, they'll always have Wisconsin's native product: cheese curds.

Copyright 2014 Milwaukee Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.wuwm.com/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Have you ever heard of Parma Ham? It's made in cured in the hills around Parma Italy. And it's one of the many foods that can only be labeled that way if it is made in a certain place.

Since the mid-1990s, the European Union has been restricting what people can call the products they make. Now the E.U. wants to impose more of those restrictions on U.S. producers.

From member station WUWM in Milwaukee, LaToya Dennis reports.

LATOYA DENNIS, BYLINE: So we all know the age old question Juliet asked Romeo in one of Shakespeare's famed plays - what's in a name?

Kyle Cherek says depending on what product you're talking about, it could be a lot. He's producer and host of a television show called Wisconsin Foodie.

KYLE CHEREK: So Lambic beers have to come, absolutely have to come from that valley. Roquefort, of course, has to come from that region, because we've got again, we've got a fungus that gives it that flavor. Champaign, of course, we all know. We like to say Maine Lobster, I mean it's really just an American Lobster, right? American Vidalia onions should only come, in my opinion, with that name from Vidalia, Georgia.

DENNIS: Cherek argues that sometimes certain food products are so unique that only one country or region should be allowed to lay claim. But he says not everything fits into that category; take for instance, Cheddar Cheese.

CHEREK: They simply can't legislate that into a region. Cheddar is made in Australia, in the U.S., in Canada. It's made in probably seven or eight countries.

DENNIS: And therein lies the problem. As part of negotiations over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, the E.U. wants the U.S. to prohibit food makers here from using names with historical ties to Europe.

STEVE STETTLER: Here we make Harvarti, Gouda, we make our own Stettler Swiss, we make a Colby Swiss.

DENNIS: That's Steve Stettler who owns Decatur Dairy in Brodhead, Wisconsin, about 100 miles west of Milwaukee. The production floor here is hot and humid, and certainly stinky.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

DENNIS: It smells like cheese.

STETTLER: Oh yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

STETTLER: You're going to smell a lot of cheese in here.

DENNIS: Yeah.

Right now, there's a 35,000 pound stainless still vat full of liquid Muenster cheese in the process of changing to a solid. Muenster is originally from France's Valley of Muenster. It's one of those cheese products that could be in line for a name change, along with a lot of other cheese made here.

Stettler says the problem with the E.U.'s proposed restrictions is that U.S. food makers have spent a lot of money building their brands.

STETTLER: How do we educate our consumers? People have spent a great deal of money on labeling, building traditions, building a name on a product. And then not being able to use that name would be kind of horrific.

DENNIS: Shawna Morris is with the U.S. Dairy Export Council. She says since the E.U. started putting restrictions on food names in the mid-1990s they've spread to other countries.

SHAWNA MORRIS: A couple years ago, the E.U. and Korea FTA banned the sale of U.S. Feta, Asiago, Gorgonzola, and Fontina to Korea.

DENNIS: Morris says Costa Rica recently decided against allowing the sale of U.S. Provolone and Parmesan, and South and Central America have similar restrictions. Morris argues that it's less about civic pride, and more about competition.

MORRIS: Actually just last year, the U.S. became the largest single country exporter of cheese in the world.

DENNIS: And nearly a quarter of all cheese produces in the U.S. comes from Wisconsin. Even if eventually producers here can't use the same name, they'll always have this state's native product - cheese curds.

For NPR News, I'm LaToya Dennis in Milwaukee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Most Popular