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Mon, May 26, 2003 - Page 12 News List

American cheese grates Europeans

FERMENTING ROW The EU is threatening to create a global registration of appelations which would, in effect, give trademark rights to regional foods


The way Europeans see it, the eggplant parmesan sandwich on the typical American menu is a fraud because that cheese can only come from the Italian city of Parma.

It is more than just a food fight over words because the EU is proposing a "global registry of protected names." Hundreds of products, from feta cheese to kalamata olives, would have to come from their respective regions of origin in order to carry their distinct and recognizable names.

If the Europeans succeed, what would the Grande Cheese Co of Lomira, Wisconsin -- founded in 1927 by an Italian immigrant -- rename its parmesan cheese?

"We'd have to go with `hard-grating cheese,'" says the company's vice president of technology, Tom Everson.

The products on the EU's list "are usually high quality, made regionally, and are very important for rural development," said Gerry Kiely, agriculture counselor for the EU delegation in Washington. "We don't want them to be usurped by multinationals or whatever. These products are usually made by small producers who are very dependent on them."

But American producers are also dependent on the names, says the Grocery Manufacturers Association of America, which is working to defeat the proposal.

"It costs billions to make, market and brand a product," said Sarah Thorn, the association's director of international relations. "For our companies, the trademark is the most significant thing about a product."

Consider cheese. Many of the cheeses sold in the US came from Europe decades ago, said Greg Frazier, senior vice president for international affairs at the International Dairy Foods Association.

"These names are generic," said Everson of Grande Cheese. "The standard of identities for cheese were written in the 1940s."

The EU has yet to submit a formal proposal to the WTO. The 15-nation bloc essentially wants to expand globally the application of its own list of roughly 600 protected food names now honored by its member states. That list includes about 150 different types of cheeses, most from France, Italy, Greece and Spain.

In Europe, for example, only producers in Greece can call their product feta, even though more feta is produced in Denmark, which has challenged the rule. Other cheeses on the list include asiago (Italy), camembert (France) and gouda (the Netherlands).

The WTO already recognizes such "geographical indications" for wine and spirits. The EU wants to extend the labeling protections to agriculture products.

US officials contend the proposal is a thinly veiled attempt to subsidize European farmers. The Europeans plan to push it at the next round of WTO meetings in Mexico in September, when the US will press for reductions in European agriculture subsidies.

The dispute is one of many in an escalating trade battle between the two sides of the Atlantic. This month, the US filed a complaint with the trade group over the EU's ban on genetically modified food.

Gary Hufbauer, a senior fellow at the Institute for International Economics, said the EU, if victorious, probably would seek licensing arrangements rather than an outright ban on the names.

"A lot of money is at stake -- hundreds of millions or billions of dollars," Hubfauer said.

Officials in the US Trade Representative's Office say the US has a procedure that allows producers to trademark food products that are truly unique to a particular region. Examples include Roquefort cheese, Swiss chocolate, Stilton cheese and Parma ham.

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