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The U.S. Has a Beef With Europe—Over Cheese

Klondike Cheese sells its crumbly, Wisconsin-made cheese as feta throughout the U.S.

In Europe, the company would have to label it white-brined cheese, or some variation that doesn’t mention the word feta. The company doesn’t even bother exporting it there.

Not being able to call the cheese feta “effectively closes off that entire market for me,” said Luke Buholzer, vice president of sales at Klondike, which makes Odyssey-brand feta cheese.

Klondike is among the U.S. companies bristling as the European Union expands its list of foods, wines and spirits whose names are reserved for use by traditional local producers. There are now more than 3,500 of these protected items, up almost 28% since 2010, according to data from AND International, an independent food industry research firm.

The U.S. cheese industry in particular has chafed against the EU regulations, which protect almost 300 cheeses. To be called feta, the cheese must be made in Greece. Gorgonzola cheese has to be from Italy.

Along with increasing the number of protected products, the EU is looking to ease the application process for producers to add their foods to the list. U.S. food makers worry that this will rope in other products, including cured meats. They aren’t challenging the EU protections around “Prosciutto di Parma,” but they want to continue to use the words prosciutto, bologna and chorizo.

“You cannot take something that has been in the public domain for decades—centuries in some cases—and all of a sudden, overnight, decide that name doesn’t belong to the public,” said Jaime Castaneda, executive director of the Consortium for Common Food Names, which represents U.S. food and wine producers on the issue.

The U.S. and EU are longtime allies and trading partners, but have contended with a lengthy list of disputes over the years, including over poultry, tariffs on steel and aluminum and differing approaches to genetically modified crops.

The U.S. is the world’s top exporter of food, excluding fish, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, shipping out close to $200 billion in agricultural exports in 2022, according to the Agriculture Department.

U.S. food producers have also taken steps to protect some products with geographic ties, including trademarks that protect Idaho potatoes and Florida oranges. The governor of Hawaii signed a law in July requiring more disclosure on labels of Kona coffee blends.

Castaneda said these are legitimate protections in line with EU regulations for products tightly associated with a specific region. The EU goes too far, he said, in extending those to more common terms.

“‘Idaho potatoes’ identifies a specific region,” he said. “When you’re looking for a cheese, you’re looking for a method of production.”

Castaneda’s group is among those pushing Congress to include a provision in the coming farm bill that would direct the Agriculture Secretary to work with the U.S. Trade Representative to secure U.S. food makers’ rights to use common food terms.

“If not curtailed, this could be a really big injury to our export markets,” said Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D., Wis.), who is backing the bill along with Senate GOP Whip John Thune (R., S.D.) and others.

EU officials said these protected products, known as “geographical indications,” represent intellectual property and command a premium because consumers associate these products with the regions responsible for their high reputation.

“The protection of geographical indications enables consumers to trust and distinguish quality products, as well as it protects traditional producers against the misuse of the name of their product,” said Miriam Garcia Ferrer, a trade and agriculture spokeswoman for the European Commission.

EU officials say their system doesn’t prevent U.S. producers from selling their wares abroad—it only limits how they can label certain items in the EU and other countries where these protections are part of trade agreements.

U.S. producers said the EU’s labeling restrictions can dissuade them from exporting, or add expense if they choose to continue selling abroad with new packaging.

The largest cost “is if you are losing sales because consumers no longer see the cheese name they are used to buying,” said Gaetano Auricchio, president of BelGioioso Cheese of Wisconsin.

In Japan and Korea, BelGioioso was forced to change the label of its fontina cheese to “Fontal” and its Gorgonzola cheese to “CrumblyGorg.” It is also in the process of changing its label for Asiago cheese in Mexico to Belgiago, he said, because of trade agreements the EU has reached with that country and others.

U.S. winemakers are also lobbying to relax some of the EU protections around certain traditional descriptive terms often used on labels, including château and vintage, which U.S. winemakers effectively can’t use on bottles being exported to the EU.

“We obviously have major concerns about that because it limits the ability of U.S. wine producers to market their wines on a level playing field,” said Charles Jefferson, a vice president at the Wine Institute, which advocates for California vintners.

The wine industry isn’t challenging some names with geographical significance, such as Champagne, which must come from a specific region in France to be labeled as such. U.S. winemakers have gotten some of their own wines recognized as a geographical indication by the EU, including wines from Napa Valley and Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

Wines make up roughly half of the products protected by the EU. More than 2,300 cans of Miller High Life were dumped by Belgian customs in April for bearing the logo “the Champagne of Beers,” at the request of Comité Champagne, a trade organization.

Source : mint