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Europe wants its Parmesan back, seeks name change

A supermarket worker picks up some feta cheese at a supermarket in central Athens, Greece, on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2005. The European Union's highest court on Tuesday backed Greece's long-running bid to claim exclusive rights to the name of the salty cheese. The ruling was a blow to Danish and German producers who also make feta cheese. (AP Photo / Petros Giannakouris)

A supermarket worker picks up some feta cheese at a supermarket in central Athens, Greece, on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2005. The European Union's highest court on Tuesday backed Greece's long-running bid to claim exclusive rights to the name of the salty cheese. The ruling was a blow to Danish and German producers who also make feta cheese. (AP Photo / Petros Giannakouris)

Would Parmesan by any other name be as tasty atop your pasta? A ripening trade battle might put that to the test.

As part of trade talks, the European Union wants to ban the use of European names such as Parmesan, feta and Gorgonzola on cheese made in the United States.

The argument is that the American-made cheeses are shadows of the original European varieties and cut into sales and the identity of the European cheeses. The Europeans say Parmesan should only come from Parma, Italy, not those familiar green cylinders that American companies sell. Feta should only be from Greece, even though feta isn’t a place. The EU argues it “is so closely connected to Greece as to be identified as an inherently Greek product.”

So, a little “hard-grated cheese” for your pasta? It doesn’t have quite the same ring as Parmesan.

U.S. dairy producers, cheesemakers and food companies are all fighting the idea, which they say would hurt the $4 billion domestic cheese industry and endlessly confuse consumers.

“It’s really stunning that the Europeans are trying to claw back products made popular in other countries,” said Jim Mulhern, president of the National Milk Producers Federation, which represents U.S. dairy farmers.

The EU would not say exactly what it is proposing or even whether it will be discussed this week as a new round of talks on an EU-U.S. free trade agreement opens in Brussels.

European Commission spokesman Roger Waite would only say that the question “is an important issue for the EU.”

That’s clear from recent agreements with Canada and Central America, where certain cheese names were restricted unless the cheese came from Europe. Under the Canadian agreement, for example, new feta products manufactured in Canada can only be marketed as feta-like or feta-style, and they can’t use Greek letters or other symbols that evoke Greece.

Though they have not laid out a public proposal, the EU is expected to make similar attempts to restrict marketing of U.S.-made cheeses, possibly including Parmesan, Asiago, Gorgonzola, feta, fontina, grana, Muenster, Neufchatel and Romano.

And it may not be just cheese. Other products could include bologna, Black Forest ham, Greek yogurt, Valencia oranges and prosciutto, among other foods.

The trade negotiations are important for the EU as Europe has tried to protect its share of agricultural exports and pull itself out of recession. The ability to exclusively sell some of the continent’s most famous and traditional products would prevent others from cutting into those markets.

Concerned about the possible impact of changing the label on those popular foods, a bipartisan group of 55 senators wrote U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack this week asking them not to agree to any such proposals by the EU.

Led by New York Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, and Pennsylvania Sen. Patrick Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican, the members wrote that in the states they represent, “many small- or medium-sized, family owned businesses could have their businesses unfairly restricted” and that export businesses could be gravely hurt.

Schumer said artisanal cheese production is a growing industry across New York.

“Muenster is Muenster, no matter how you slice it,” he said.

Large food companies that mass-produce the cheeses are also fighting the idea. Kraft, closely identified with its grated Parmesan cheese, said the cheese names have long been considered generic in the United States.

“Such restrictions could not only be costly to food makers, but also potentially confusing for consumers if the labels of their favorite products using these generic names were required to change,” said Kraft spokesman Basil Maglaris.

Some producers said they are incensed because it was Europeans who originally brought the cheeses here, and the American companies have made them more popular and profitable in a huge market. Errico Auricchio, president of the Green Bay, Wis., company BelGioioso Cheese Inc., produced cheese with his family in Italy until he brought his trade to the United States in 1979.

“We have invested years and years making these cheeses,” Auricchio said. “You cannot stop the spreading of culture, especially in the global economy.”

He said that companies who make certain cheeses would have to come together and figure out new names for them, which would be almost impossible to do.

His suggestion for Parmesan? “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Parmesan,” he jokes.

Jaime Castaneda works for the U.S. Dairy Export Council and is the director of a group formed to fight the EU changes, the Consortium for Common Food Names. He said the idea that only great cheese can come from Europe “is just not the case anymore.”

He points out that artisanal and locally produced foods are more popular than ever here and said some consumers may actually prefer the American brands. European producers can still lay claim to more place-specific names, like Parmigiano-Reggiano, he said.

“This is about rural America and jobs,” he said.

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