SALEM, Ohio — A bipartisan majority of the U.S. Senate is defending the use of some popular cheese names, amid efforts by the European Union to restrict the use of European food names used in the United States.
Claiming to protect European geographical indications (GIs), EU has been using free trade agreements to prevent cheese makers in the United States and around the world from using names such as “parmesan, feta, havarti, muenster” and others.
More than 50 senators signed a letter March 11 to U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, urging the federal government to resist EU efforts to restrict how U.S. companies market cheese and other foods.
The letter, co-authored by Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., expressed opposition to the EU’s use of GIs as a protectionist measure, and condemned the resulting barriers to trade that are growing in key U.S. export markets.
The senators said the name changes would cause confusion in the marketplace and harm the ability of U.S. businesses to compete domestically and internationally.
“Ohio dairy producers make some of the highest quality cheese in the world,” said U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. “Their product is as good as any from Europe and should be given equal opportunity to compete in the food market.”
Schumer said artisanal cheese production is a growing industry across New York, but one that faces “a major threat” from free trade agreements that could place geographic restrictions on labeling.
U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said dairy farmers and producers work hard to develop a product and brand “that resonates with their consumers.” If the EU succeeds, Portman said it could hurt dairy sales and jobs in Ohio.
Over the past five years, U.S. cheese exports have been growing by an average of 40 percent annually, leading to a record high of $1.4 billion in U.S. cheese sales abroad last year, according to Tom Suber, president of U.S. Dairy Export Council. Last year, the United States became the largest single-country cheese exporter in the world.
“For consumers both here and abroad, the consequences of limiting familiar food names to just a few regional suppliers would be higher costs, fewer choices and greater confusion,” said Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of National Milk Producers Federation. “No one country has any right to own common food names for their exclusive use.”
In addition to NMPF and the dairy export council, the senators’ action is supported by Ohio Dairy Producers Association, NMPF, International Dairy Foods Association, U.S. Dairy Export Council, American Farm Bureau Federation, Kraft and Leprino Foods.