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Common dairy names under attack

March 12, 2014 | 0 comments


The fight over common food names got the attention of the U.S. Senate this week, after efforts intensified from foreign trade negotiators to corner the market on names of various foods — like popular cheese names

These common food names, like mozzarella, havarti, feta, cheddar and parmesan, are called "geographical indicators" by European officials and trade negotiators who want to prevent others from using those names in trade.

Wisconsin's Secretary of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Ben Brancel recently had a meeting with the European Union Ambassador to the United States, noting that this protection of what most consider common names, if it continues, will hurt Wisconsin processors and cheesemakers.

If the European cheesemakers get the sole right to sell cheese that is "cheddar" for example, Wisconsin cheesemakers would be in the position of selling something that is "cheddar-like" he said, and the implication in trade would be bad for Wisconsin products.

"In the minds of people now I'm trying to sell an imitation product.

"We have to rename it or call it 'like', while our competitors will say they have the real thing. It becomes semantics in the market," Brancel added.

"Trade agreements happen on a regular basis and are generally intended to reduce trade barriers," he said, but the EU position on these "geographic indicators" does the opposite.

"My argument is that the geographic indicators (GIs) are an additional barrier for the United States to meet and the cheese industry could be hurt if it is impacted by our export capabilities."

The products in question are produced under strict identity standards and cheesemakers here are already required to follow international standards, he added.

Letter blasts GIs

A bipartisan majority of the U.S. Senate weighed in this week on the importance of rejecting EU efforts to restrict the use of common food names, including the well-known cheese names often used by U.S. dairy producers and companies.

In a letter to U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Michael Froman and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, 55 U.S. senators urged the U.S. government to fight back against EU efforts to restrict how U.S. companies market cheese and other foods.

Under the guise of protecting European geographical indicators (GIs), EU has been using free-trade agreements to prevent cheesemakers in the United States and around the world from using common food names such as parmesan, feta, havarti, muenster and others, the senators said.

The U.S. Dairy Export Council (USDEC) and National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) thanked the Senators for the strong statement, which comes at a critical time in the development of a free-trade agreement between the United States and the European Union.

This week's letter, coauthored by Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) 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 urged USTR and USDA to "work aggressively" against the EU's efforts to restrict commonly used cheese names because they would harm the ability of U.S. businesses to compete domestically or internationally.

"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," said Tom Suber, president of USDEC.

"Last year, the United States became the largest single country cheese exporter in the world. So it's vital to ensure that unfounded barriers to trade do not hinder this continued growth path for our industry."

European negotiators argue that Parmesan cheese, made in Parma, Italy, should be the only cheese to carry that name, since it is made there to exacting specifications — certain kinds of cows graze certain kinds of grass and their milk is made into a certain kind of cheese.

"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 NMPF.

"No one country has any right to own common food names for their exclusive use. U.S. businesses should have the opportunity to offer their award-winning products, and let consumers decide what they want to buy.

"It is American food companies that have helped popularize many cheeses with old world origins, leading to increased sales for all. The Senate's message about the threat to U.S. dairy farmers and cheesemakers posed by this outrageous proposed trade barrier reinforces the importance of our work," Mulhern added.

The letter from the Senators came this week as U.S. negotiators prepared to go back to the table with the EU this week to work on the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) — the subject Brancel chatted with the EU Ambassador about.

Common food names

Errico Auricchio, Chairman of the Consortium for Common Food Names (CCFN), an international non-profit alliance, thanked the Senators for "shining a spotlight on the harm that the EU's predatory approach to GIs is causing."

Auricchio maintains that producers everywhere — whether in the United States, Costa Rica, Guatemala or Germany — "have a right to use names that have been in the public domain."

The Senator's letter helps call attention to a "fast-growing type of agricultural trade barrier" he said, that is challenging not only U.S. farmers and businesses but also those in many other countries around the world," added CCFN Executive Director Jaime Castaneda.

The letter warns that the EU is becoming "increasingly aggressive" in erecting these trade barriers.

When food producers are unable to use common food names in either domestic or international trade, Castaneda said, it severely hampers their ability to compete in established markets. The move on common food names also dramatically limits options in the marketplace and confuses consumers by removing available products from the market and suggesting (falsely) that there is only one place to get a given product, he added.

As U.S. cheese manufacturers and those from around the world gather in Madison next week for the World Championship Cheese Contest, many will bring their award-winning cheeses with common names like "asiago" and "muenster" — which many of these cheesemakers have been producing for decades.

"We urge you to make clear to your EU counterparts that the U.S. will reject any proposal in the [TTIP] negotiations now underway that would restrict in any way the ability of U.S. producers to use common cheese names," the letter states.

Castaneda said that the letter focuses on cheese, which has been particularly hard hit by the EU's most recent efforts, but European GIs encompass many food and beverage categories, meaning many areas of food trade are threatened by the EU's claim to the exclusive use of common food names.

Canada and 'feta'

Canada agreed as part of its recently concluded free trade agreement with the EU to impose new restrictions on the use of "feta" and other common cheese names. The EU has instigated similar trade barriers throughout Latin America, and is expected to pursue such restrictions in its negotiations with many Asian countries.

"We ask that USTR and USDA continue to work aggressively to ensure the EU's GI efforts on commonly used cheese names do not impair U.S. businesses' ability to compete domestically or internationally and that you make this a top priority through both official TTIP and bilateral negotiations," the Senate letter concludes.

Castaneda's consortium blasted a decision in a British court in January that declared that only yogurt made in Greece could be labeled as "Greek Yogurt" for sale in the United Kingdom.

The EU's list of geographic indicators is a long one, but "Greek Yogurt" doesn't appear on that list and isn't under consideration by EU authorities for registration as a GI, Castaneda explains. Still, the court found that the U.S. company was not permitted to sell "Greek Yogurt" in the UK market.

The decision, on a term that is not even a registered GI, indicates the "continual creep of limitations on common food names and the upheaval this can cause in international trade," he added.

His consortium is focused on "calling for common sense to prevail as it relates to the use of common food names.

"Following the logic employed by this European court, CCFN wonders if the Europeans will next be crusading to limit the use of a host of other products that use a country's name such as 'French fries,' 'English breakfast tea,' 'Italian dressing,' 'Belgian waffles' or 'Danishes' if the products are not produced in their name-sake countries."

The UK court's action comes on the heels of steps taken just a week earlier by the European Commission to allow the advancement of a GI application that would grant to Denmark the exclusive use of "Havarti," a cheese with an active international product standard and global production.

Castaneda said the food name is not only used widely around the world, but there is an international product standard for havarti.

In the United States alone, havarti is produced by over 40 companies in a dozen states.

The EU's "implied permission" to let one single nation own the common name havarti flies in the face of international commerce, and — by disregarding the international standard – raises the question of whether any generic food term is safe from "being confiscated by the European Commission," said Castaneda.

For more information online, see the CCFN website www.CommonFoodNames.com.

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