Fight over names of cheeses could change way you know them

03/10/2014 3:21 PM

03/10/2014 3:21 PM

I have been noticing a lot of stories

about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations.

Yeah, I know, who cares, right?

Well the reason I find it interesting — and why many in the cheese world are paying attention — is the European Union’s insistence that United States cheese producers stop using cheese names that originated in Europe.

That means that cheese names like Mozzarella, Parmesan, Havarti, Feta, Gorgonzola, Cheddar and Brie would be illegal to use. These names have long been generic names for styles of cheeses made in the U.S.

This is not a new struggle. Europe has long bemoaned the use of these names by American cheese producers. But with the formation of the European Union in the 90s, they have intensified the fight to bring these names back to Europe — exclusively.

Depending on what side you are on, you might think that this is all about competition busting or you might think it is about protecting the traditional foods of very storied cultures.

You can imagine that American producers of cheese find this push just a way for the European Union to not have to compete with American cheese exports.

In the last several years the U.S. has risen to the top of the cheese export business and Europe has fallen further behind.

But you can also imagine that the cheese makers of Europe have a deep respect for their traditional products and want to make sure that consumers are protected from bad imitations.

They take seriously the idea of “terroir” and the idea that their cheeses cannot be duplicated outside of their original environments.

Being a cheese lover, I want traditional European cheeses to be able to distinguish themselves from copies. In many cases they are much better then their American counterparts. But in my opinion the European Union has overplayed their hand.

The long history of great culinary achievements in Europe have come to be controlled by systems that protect the names of products that originate there.

Since the formation of the European Union in 1992 this has only increased in a bid to protect more of these country’s products. These


not only protect, they classify and designate cheese, wine, spirits and other agricultural products.

The specific country protection systems and the EU system protect very specific cheeses. They do not protect “Brie;” they protect “

Brie de Meaux” and “ Brie de Melun


The EU does not protect “Cheddar;” it protects “

West Country Farmhouse Cheddar.” They do not protect “Parmesan;” they protect “ Parmigiano Reggiano


I remember getting a piece of mail from the Parmigiano Reggiano marketing people at The Better Cheddar several years ago. It was a pamphlet about how to label their cheese.

They wanted to make sure we did not call it “Parmesan,” “Reggiano,” “Parmigiano,” “Parmesano” or — I don’t know — “Italian Hard Grating Cheese.” You can see why they want their product to be labeled its actual name, “Parmigiano Reggiano.” This is a reasonable request.

But why would they have the right to “Parmesan” the generic term used for a hard Italian style grating cheese in the U.S. The cost of changing the name and educating customers would be a problem for cheese makers. Or think if they had to change the names of Mozzarella or Cheddar.

I don’t know if the EU would be fine with American cheese makers putting the qualifier of “style” on their labels (Cheddar Style, Brie Style ….)

This might help the EU gain more traction with their idea. But to strip cheeses of the names they have used for over a century would be crazy.

As a cheesemonger, I appreciate how American artisan and farmhouse cheese makers name their cheeses. They respect the cheeses they have patterned their cheeses after.

After all, most cheese recipes in America have been derived from European cheeses. While they are many times making cheeses in the same style as traditional European cheeses, they are not trying to copy them. They are trying to make something unique to their farm and their land. So naturally their cheeses call out for an original name.

But those larger producers should not be barred from using the names that have been so engrained in our cultures psyche.

Most U.S. consumers know kind of what to expect when they see the name “cheddar.” They don’t necessarily know what to expect when they see the name “Flory’s Truckle.”

So what do you think? Should the U.S. change or should the EU live with it?

Lincoln Broadbooks loves cheese. He is one of the first cheesemongers in the United States and Canada to become an American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional. He is the manager and buyer for The Better Cheddar in Prairie Village. You can find him on Twitter @LincolnBbook and on Instagram @lincycheese.


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