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European cheesemakers really, really, REALLY detest that Americans can go to their local deli and purchase what they say are U.S. produced knock offs of any number of their cheeses, including Parmesan, feta, Gorgonzola, Asiago and Gruyere.

These complaints have been going on for more than a decade. The European Union says their cheeses are unique — made by specific methods in specific locations — and thus are protected by Geographical Indications.

GIs are used by Europe to restrict product names to certain places and production methods. For example, American cheesemakers are barred from exporting Parmesan cheese to the EU because Parmigiano Reggiano cheese is only produced in the Parma region of Italy. But the EU rules for naming are somewhat fast and loose — there is no town or region in Greece named feta, yet feta enjoys European GI protection. Go figure.

But that's not enough to satisfy cheesemakers across the pond.  The EU says they have exclusive rights to their GI labeled cheeses no matter where in the world they are sold. If the EU had its way, there would be no cheese in your deli produced in the U.S. labeled Parmesan or feta or Gorgonzola or Gruyere just to name a few.

Of course the courts are involved. Thanks for asking.

And if last December's ruling is any indication, the Interprofession du Gruyere's arguments have more holes than, well, baby Swiss cheese. 

District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia judge T. S. Ellis, after noting that the case was (perhaps with tongue firmly planted in cheek) “ripe for disposition,” commenced to shred the plaintiff's arguments.

The European cheese consortium argued ingredients and traditional methods of cheese production in the Gruyere region “assure the connection between geographical region and the quality and characteristics of the final product.”

Ellis found that argument non-persuasive, noting from 2010–2020, the majority of Gruyere-labeled cheese imported into the United States was imported from the Netherlands and Germany, not from Switzerland or France." FYI, in addition to Germany and the Netherlands, hello Gruyere cheesemakers from Egypt, Denmark, Austria, Belgium, Ireland, Italy, Tunisia and the Czech Republic. U.S. importers all.

The EU also tried to belittle Wisconsin cheesemaker Roth Käse, who in 1987 imported Swiss-style processing equipment and started cranking out Gruyere to an appreciative public. Käse eventually sold his business in 2010 to Swiss company Emmi AG, and in ironies of ironies, after merging their U.S. operations, Emmi Roth USA, Roth was free to sell Gruyere cheese through private label sales to wait for it … wholesalers in the U.S., who often branded the cheese Gruyere and made in Wisconsin.

Yeah. Ellis was all over it:

“In September 2014, Roth sent a letter to the grocery store chain Wegmans, one of Roth’s
private label customers, acknowledging that Wegmans sells Roth’s Wisconsin-made
cheese as GRUYERE in Wegmans grocery stores. See Dkt. 72-4 at 54. In this letter, an
executive for Roth write that “[w]e know of course that Wegman’s sells our Wisconsin-
made Grand Cru® cheese under Wegmans private label as ‘Mild Gruyere.’”
Significantly, the Roth executive did not object to Wegmans labeling its American-
produced cheese as GRUYERE, but instead explained that Roth “fully support[s] our
customers’ rights to determine the labeling of their private label products.”

Ellis ultimately left no doubt where he stood on this whole stinky cheese kerfuffle:

“It is clear from the record that the term GRUYERE may have in the past referred exclusively to cheese from Switzerland and France. However, decades of importation, production, and sale of cheese labeled GRUYERE produced outside the Gruyère region of Switzerland and France have eroded the meaning of that term and rendered it generic. The term GRUYERE has “cease[d] to identify in the public’s mind the particular source of” a given cheese “but rather identifies a class of product or service, regardless of source.” 

After the loss, the European consortium claimed allowing the American public looking for Gruyere cheese produced in Switzerland will be confused. That's laughable because the U.S. Patent and Trademark office issued a certification mark for a design with stylized font, the letters “AOC,” a Swiss cross and the words “LE GRUYÈRE SWITZERLAND” way back in 2013. The label can be fixed only on cheese that originates in the Gruyère region of Switzerland (unfortunately for France, there is no corresponding USPTO certification). 

Naturally, the plaintiffs say they're appealing. Maybe they will get a more favorable review at the Court of Appeals but I kind of doubt it. Most, if not just about all, European Geographical Indications are generic in the U.S. But more interesting to the debate is the fight over selling cheese (and a host of other products) in third country markets. There is a lot of money riding on those decisions. Witness the recent geographical indication deal cut last year between the European Union and China. Expect the EU to press for more of these deals. It will be interesting to see how the U.S. responds … especially if these EU treaties reduce U.S. export markets. As for GIs in the U.S., the EU is wasting its time.

About Dave Dickey

Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Investigate Midwest covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. His opinions are his own and do not reflect Investigate Midwest. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.