Purveyors, dairy farmers balled up on cheese names


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WASHINGTON -- The European Union wants U.S. food producers to stop using certain European names for domestic cheeses and other products such as prosciutto and olive oils. America's agricultural industry thinks that's a bad idea.

And David Sunseri -- cheese purveyor and owner of Pittsburgh's Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. -- can see both sides of the issue.

Parmigiano Reggiano is made in Parma, Italy, "in a specific way with milk from specific cows that grazed in specific fields," Mr. Sunseri said. "For someone to make it somewhere else and call it Parmigiano Reggiano, there's no possible way it could be authentic as to the tradition of that cheese."

On the other hand, he said, "Asiago cheese comes from Italy, but I know three or four companies in the United States that make Asiago and they are very, very good cheeses. Shouldn't they be able to call them Asiago?"

The EU believes they should not -- meaning the bleu on your salad wouldn't be called "Roquefort" if didn't come from France, and that "Mortadella" isn't really the proper name of the meat on your sandwich if didn't come from Italy.

The EU's push to protect Europe's products and their regional namesakes are part of larger U.S.-EU negotiations over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. The burgeoning trade dispute is concerning to dairy farmers and cheese mongers in Pennsylvania, which counts cheese as its top agricultural export. Only California, Wisconsin and New York produce more.

Dairy farmers such as Bill Beeman of Susquehanna County are worried that opening the doors to restrictions on well-known product names could later be expanded to include more generic names as well.

"If this is the first step going down that road, what's the next step going to be?" asked Mr. Beeman, who is chairman of the Dairylea milk-marketing cooperative with 2,000 members in New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New England.

The proposed EU restrictions are both an economic and consumer issue for the state, and that's why it attracted the attention of Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who fancies himself more of a financial watchdog than a defender of delicatessen delicacy.

"Generations of dairy farmers and producers have worked hard to cultivate a product and brand that resonates with consumers. Efforts by the EU to establish trade guidelines which would restrict branding are ridiculous and threaten Pennsylvania jobs," Mr. Toomey said.

He and New York Democrat Charles Schumer are leading a coalition of 55 senators asking U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to reject the European Union's proposal.

A Department of Agriculture spokeswoman referred questions to Mr. Froman's office.

Mr. Froman's spokesman Trevor Kincaid acknowledged the dispute, but didn't speculate on how it might be resolved.

The cheese issue is a minor part of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a sweeping agreement being negotiated to address customs duties, government procurement, market access, intellectual property rights, dispute settlement and more. The naming provision would help the EU protect its agricultural exports by preventing competitors from cutting into sales of the continent's most famous regional and cultural products.

The EU is seeking internationally binding rules similar to the ones that protect the continent's wine and spirits, said Roger Waite, the European Commission's spokesman for agriculture. For example, a wine cannot be sold as Burgundy unless is originated in Bourgogne, France.

"Those rules have been in force for wine and spirits for almost 20 years now and are not considered by any wine-producing country an issue," Mr. Waite said in an email.

He said the EU's position has been misinterpreted as an attempt to monopolize common food names. He said the provisions being sought would not apply to generic terms including chorizo, prosciutto, ricotta, salami, kielbasa, chevre, bologna and Greek yogurt.

They would, however, protect the names of foods that have a genuine link to a region and are produced according to a precise set of rules, Mr. Waite said. Those include, for example, Brie de Melun, West Country Farmhouse Cheddar, Mozzarella di Bufala Campana and Proscuitto di Parma. Marketers could continue to use the more generic terms brie, cheddar, mozzarella and proscuitto.

The protections being sought would "guarantee respect for the European Union's standards and values," according to a statement on the European Parliament's website. They say words like Asiago and Muenster are geographical indicators that can only be appropriately displayed on products made in certain areas of Europe. Protecting the names is both an economic and cultural issue, say supporters of the EU's position.

But in Washington, lawmakers say that's absurd. Worse, it's damaging to American economic interests because it is a barrier to dairy trade and competition, they said in their letter to Mr. Vilsack and Mr. Froman.

"In the states that we represent, many small or medium-sized, family-owned farms and firms could have their business unfairly restricted," the senators wrote.

"Molded white cheese," "white brine cheese" and "hard, grated cheese" somehow sound less appealing than Roquefort, feta and Pecorino Romano.

The EU made an accommodation for Parmigiano and certain other products last year during similar trade negotiations with Canada. Canadian cheese mongers can brand it with the English spelling "Parmesan" but not the Italian.

Mr. Waite said the European Union is open to similar compromises in its U.S. negotiations.

It also would consider restricting European markets from using American names of U.S. products such as Idaho potatoes and Vidalia onions, he said.


Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: tmauriello@post-gazette.com, 1-703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.

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