The U.S. dairy industry recently won a legal battle in the conflict concerning common cheese names. But the war is far from over as European companies make increasingly aggressive claims to secure exclusive rights to generic food and beverage names used by U.S. companies.
The issue is about more than just lexicon. It’s about geography, tradition, marketing, jobs and billions of dollars in future economic impact for the U.S. dairy industry. If Europe secures exclusive use of feta, parmesan, gorgonzola, asiago and other common cheese names, it could reduce consumption of U.S. cheese 21 percent within a decade. It also could cost U.S. dairy farmers a cumulative $59 billion, according to a study commissioned by the Consortium for Common Food Names.
Gruyere is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “a pressed whole-milk cheese of a pale yellow color and nutty flavor and usually with small holes.”
Cheesemakers from the U.S. and other countries have been making and selling “gruyere” for years. But several years ago lawyers from Switzerland’s Interprofession du Gruyère began sending cease-and-desist letters to U.S. companies and dairy organizations that were using the term gruyere.
“The only town named Gruyere in Europe is located in Switzerland,” said Jaime Castaneda, executive director of the Consortium for Common Food Names. “Despite that the French have been producing gruyere for generations."
The European Commission maintains that because the French had been producing the product for a long time they should retain the right to continue making it and force Switzerland to allow coexistence of both products.
The European Union works to prohibit U.S. and other producers from using the common terms parmesan and feta despite long-standing production of those cheeses outside of the regions where they originated. That’s a double standard that intentionally gives short shrift to the rights of long-established U.S. producers to continue to market commonly named cheeses, Castaneda said.
Some letters suggested alternative names for U.S.-made gruyere such as “alpine cheese,” “mountain cheese” or “mountain-style cheese.” Wanting to avoid litigation more than a dozen U.S. organizations, including several leading retailers, stopped using the name gruyere. Others continued to use it and several worked with the consortium to fight.
The consortium was founded and is staffed by the U.S. Dairy Export Council. When European cheese makers sought a U.S. trademark for exclusive use of the word in the United States, the consortium organized several of its members and other supporters to make its case to the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board.
A ruling issued Aug. 5 found the consortium coalition’s arguments persuasive.
“After carefully considering all of the arguments and evidence of record, we find that purchasers and consumers of cheese understand the term ‘gruyere’ as a designation that primarily refers to a category within the genus of cheese that can come from anywhere,” the ruling stated.
“The record demonstrates that cheese identified as ‘gruyere’ is made in many locations including Germany, Austria and the United States. Those knowledgeable of the World Championship Cheese Contest will know that non-Swiss and non-French producers of cheese – along with Swiss or French producers – are listed as winners in ‘gruyere’ categories for each year for which there is evidence."
The ruling means cheese makers and their customers have the right to continue to sell gruyere in the United States. Although the ruling may be appealed, the consortium will continue to defend it regardless of how many times Europeans challenge the decision.
The Swiss can identify their gruyere in the U.S. market through use of the logo “Le Gruyere Switzerland AOC,” which was approved in 2013.
The recent ruling follows other notable common-name developments in the U.S. market in recent years.
The consortium supports valid geographical indications — names associated with specialized foods from regions throughout the world that are used in a compound form — when used properly and not to establish unfair trade barriers to generic foods.
“We continue to firmly oppose any attempt to monopolize generic names that have become part of the public domain, which is a blatant market-share grab designed to limit competition,” Castaneda said.
While the U.S. dairy industry can celebrate the recent ruling, the struggle over common food names continues. That is particularly the case in trade negotiations, where the European Union has played hardball to protect what it considers geographical indications.
Sixty-one U.S. senators sent U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue a letter in July urging stronger international safeguards to protect U.S. exporters using common food and wine terms. The letter requests that the government enhance common-food-name protections as a core policy objective in all trade-related discussions.