Europe and America Are About to Face Off in a Cheese War

As the EU looks to restrict the European names of American-made cheeses, you might soon find I Can't Believe It's Not Parmesan on the supermarket shelves. 

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The European Union wants to ban European names being used for American-made cheese, arguing that continental cheese varieties are far superior to their New World knock-off versions. When European names like Parmesan, feta, and Gorgonzola are used to label American cheese, they take away a slice of European identity, not to mention sales, Mary Clare Jalonick at the Associated Press reports.

The EU says that certain cheeses can only earn their names if they are made in their namesake location: Parmesan should only come from Parma, Italy, and feta cheese should only be from Greece. Feta isn’t even a place, of courses, but it is so closely linked to Greek culture that the EU wants to protect it, seeing it as one way to increase profits through promotion of national identity.

The EU has a long history protecting food names — see this map of protected food names in the U.K. alone — but also for their often-absurd seeming food regulations, like the ill-fated curved banana fiasco. Legislation that banned produce from the supermarket shelves deemed too out-of-shape was defeated in 2008.

Bologna, Black Forest ham, Greek yogurt, Valencia oranges, and prosciutto are other foods that could be affected by EU naming restrictions.

The U.S. domestic cheese industry is worth $4 billion. It’s unclear what the new names U.S.-made Parmesan and feta could possibly be given, but U.S. dairy producers, cheesemakers, and food companies like Kraft — purveyor of America’s finest "cheese," the humble and orange Kraft Single — rightfully say that restrictions will confuse consumers.

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

There are talks over an EU-U.S. free trade agreement this week, but the EU has not yet made their plans on cheese names clear. They have set a precedent by imposing cheese-name regulations on American neighbors: feta products manufactured in Canada can only be marketed as feta-like or feta-style, and no Greek letters or Greek-evoking symbols are allowed. Restrictions have also been placed on Central American countries.

European Commission spokesman Roger Waite said nothing more than how the question "is an important issue for the EU."

The EU is expected to enact the possible marketing restrictions on the big names, like Parmesan, Asiago, Gorgonzola, feta, fontina, grana, Muenster, Neufchatel,and Romano cheeses that are made in the U.S., so good luck trying to market that four-cheese microwave pizza from now on.

American cheese warriors New York Sen. Chuck Schumer and Pennsylvania Sen. Patrick Toomey think something smells rotten and are leading a bipartisan group of senators from states that would be harmed by the name changes. “Many small- or medium-sized, family owned businesses could have their businesses unfairly restricted" according to a letter written to U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. We'll just have to wait and see how the blue crumbles.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.