Liability Insurance Contributing Columnist

 


Well, That’s Cheese-y!

How Cheese Names Have Gone From Quaint to Contentious

Jen Pino-Gallagher
Director of Food & Agribusiness Practice
M3 Insurance
jen.pinogallagher@m3ins.com

April 13, 2018


 

In early March of this year, a record number of entries to the World Championship Cheese Contest converged in Madison, WI. Judges from around the world tasted, tested and ranked the cheeses during this rigorous three-day competition.

While a French cheese took top honors at the event, the United States had a great showing, taking Best of Class in many categories.

While cheeses from around the world battled
to earn coveted titles, another battle over cheese is underway: not over the texture, taste or smell, but over the rights and ownership of cheese names.

The administrative body of the European Union (EU) – the European Commission (EC) – is leading the charge to claim ownership over many names that have been common in the US for decades.
According to a study commissioned by the Consortium for Common Food Names, 250 cheese varieties in the EU have Protected Geographical Indications (GI) or Protected Designation of Origin status or have pending registrations.

This tally of names is not final, but simply a snapshot in time. The EC continues to challenge the use of common names such as havarti, which has an international standard of identity set by Codex (the international body for establishing global standards regarding methods of product production).

A legitimate GI designates a product with a specific geographical origin that also possesses qualities or a reputation due to that origin. However, an example of a cheese that the EU has determined to be a GI is feta, a term that is not the name of any city, town or region and instead is deemed by the EU to be associated with the entire country of Greece.

For US cheese makers, many cheese names are at risk, but those at greatest risk include asiago, gorgonzola, parmesan, romano, havarti, feta, neufchatel, fontina and muenster.

The current battle over cheese names didn’t prevent the judges at the World Championship Cheese Contest from selecting several Wisconsin-made cheeses as Best of Class this past March, including: feta (Agropur, Weyauwega, WI); asiago (Saxon Creamery Team, Cleveland, WI) gorgonzola (BelGioioso Cheese Inc., Green Bay, WI); parmesan (BelGioioso Cheese Inc., Green Bay, WI) havarti (Edelweiss Creamery, LLC, Monticello, WI) and muenster (Klondike Cheese Co., Monroe, WI).

The GI restrictions are expanding beyond the EU border. Through bilateral trade agreements, the EU has imposed naming restrictions in some key US markets, effectively limiting US cheese makers’ ability to market their products under the common names. The March 16th edition of the Cheese Reporter included a detailed overview of the countries that have either already granted GI provisions to the EU, or are considering doing so.

Would a cheese by any other name … sell?

For over a decade, I worked in international trade at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. I helped Wisconsin cheese makers grow their international sales. I also raised awareness of the GI issue through presentations at international trade events, by serving on the US Dairy Export Council board of directors and through interactions with individual companies. Most cheese makers I worked with weren’t overly concerned about the EU’s efforts until they realized the significant impact the GI issue had on their potential sales in rapidly growing international markets.

The cheese makers realized that limits on common cheese names would impact more than just their branding; it would impact their bottom line. Within Wisconsin alone, over 100 cheese plants produce products with names that the EU is trying to claim.

And for many of these cheese plants, export markets are a valuable source of revenue. In fact, in 2017 Wisconsin dairy companies exported nearly $300 million worth of dairy products, the majority of exports in the form of cheese.

Leading the charge to counteract the EU’s efforts are several US-based dairy organizations, including the US Dairy Export Council and the Consortium for Common Cheese Names (CCFN).

Shawna Morris, vice president of trade policy for the National Milk Producers Federation and US Dairy Export Council, stated, “Wisconsin cheese makers have a tremendous amount at stake when it comes to efforts of the EU and cheese industry groups in Europe that are attempting to claim sole ownership of generic cheese names.

Although the EU has taken to laying claim to being a defender of global trade recently, in reality it’s attempting to eliminate competition from US cheese producers within the United States and in markets throughout the world. If we don’t work together and continue to soundly rebuff these efforts, Wisconsin cheese makers will lose major market opportunities of untold value, both at home and abroad.”

Errico Auricchio, president, BelGioioso Cheese, Inc., and CCFN chairman, also emphasized the importance of the issue: “Imagine that we as Wisconsin cheese makers are not able to call our products – many of them award-winning cheeses – by their true names. This is the unbelievable position we find ourselves in in certain markets as the EU gets more and more aggressive.”

Many see the battle over common cheese names as an intellectual property (IP) issue as GIs are a type of IP. In essence though, the EU is wielding GIs in ways that ultimately add up to nontariff barriers to trade.

The US government has long been a leader in calling out other countries for their unjustified nontariff trade barriers and has similarly staked out strong positions on this issue. For instance, last year’s “Special 301” review of intellectual property rights protection among US trading partners by the Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) noted that, “The United States is working intensively through bilateral and multilateral channels to advance US market access interests in foreign markets and to ensure that GI-related trade initiatives of the EU, its Member States, like-minded countries, and international organizations, do not undercut such market access.”

While the battle at the 2018 World Championship Cheese Contest is over, the battle regarding cheese names continues. And, it’s likely to continue well into the future.

 

 

Jen Pino-Gallagher is director of the food and agribusiness practice at M3 Insurance. M3 Insurance offers insight, advice and strategies to help clients manage risk, purchase insurance and provide employee benefits. The views expressed above do not necessarily reflect those of Cheese Reporter. You can contact the columnist by calling (800) 272-2443, or by visiting www.m3ins.com.

 


For more information, call (800) 272-2443 or visit www.m3ins.com.

 

Jen Pino-Gallagher

Jen Pino-Gallagher is a Director of Food & Agribusiness Practice at M3 Insurance. M3 Insurance offers insight, advice and strategies to help clients manage risk, purchase insurance and provide employee benefits.
For more information, call (800) 272-2443 ,jen.pinogallagher@m3ins.com visit www.m3ins.com.


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