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EU pushes to change the way Americans say cheese

By DOUG SHERWIN, The Daily Transcript

European Union officials are making a stink about how other countries are identifying cheese that has its roots in Italy, Greece and other European nations.

The EU is trying to prevent American manufacturers and others from using the terms Parmesan, feta, Muenster and others for cheese that isn’t produced in Europe.

They say Parmesan, for example, can be used only for cheese that comes from Parma, Italy.

“They feel it’s diluting their brand and cutting into their sales,” said San Diego attorney John Alspaugh, a member of Seltzer Caplan McMahon Vitek, who specializes in trademark and copyright matters.

The European economies have been going through a recession, much like the one the United States has experienced, making them want to protect as much market share as they can.

The EU recently negotiated the ban of several cheese names in Canada, Central America and South Korea.

As part of the agreement, Canadian companies cannot use the word “feta” or Greek lettering when marketing feta cheese made in Canada.

Alspaugh said there is no legal basis preventing U.S. companies from using the European names. Any ban would have to be negotiated as part of a trade agreement between the countries.

“They aren’t really trademarks under U.S. law or the laws of most foreign countries because they have become common names of products,” he said. “It’s solely a political and marketing issue that they are trying to achieve.

“Countries like Greece would certainly like to find a way to increase diary and cheese sales in our market, but they don’t really have a lot of leverage to force this on us or anyone else.”

The way American manufacturers identify their food products and differentiate them in the marketplace is by incorporating a company name in the product—Kraft Parmesan or Del Monte pineapple.

According to Alspaugh, there are more than 25 registered trademarks in the United States that include the word Parmesan, and more than a dozen that include feta. But the names of the cheeses have to be disclaimed from the trademark.

In Europe, they have a system called “geographic indication,” in which certain foods are designated based on which region they come from.

“It’s a way of certifying that a product is going to be of a certain quality and is actually from a certain region,” said San Diego attorney Erin Hickey, a principal with Fish & Richardson and a member of the firm’s trademark and copyright group.

She also said the geographic indications mean certain regulations were followed during the production process.

Champagne is perhaps the most well-known example, and the EU has a trade agreement with most countries that ban them from using the term “champagne” for sparkling wine unless it was made in Champagne, France.

Not all of the cheeses the EU is trying to protect are named after regions, however.

“Feta isn’t a locale in Greece,” Hickey said. “Europe’s position is that feta is so closely tied to Greece and tied to Greek salad. They might be overreaching on that.”

If the United States were to agree to ban certain names, the question for American manufacturers would be what to name their products. Some have suggested Parmesan-like or Parmesan-style cheese. Most agree “grated cheese” doesn’t sound too appetizing.

Local attorneys said EU regulators are facing an uphill battle in getting some concessions from the United States.

“The dairy and cheese industry here is quite powerful and concerned about their own state of our economy,” said Alspaugh of Seltzer Caplan. “And the artisan food industry has become really popular (in the United States).

“Certainly, job growth in the U.S. could stall if we had a solution to Europe’s problem that would make it more difficult for American companies to be doing what they’ve been doing.”

Hickey said in some cases, the cheese produced in America is as authentic as that which is produced abroad.

“There are family-owned businesses (who make cheese), many of whom are run by immigrants that came from other countries and are following specific recipes,” she said.

If American trade negotiators decide to make some concessions, they could agree to a scenario where companies already using the European names can be grandfathered in and allowed to continue using the names.

In another scenario, companies would be allowed to use the European names but have to include a disclaimer in fine print on the label, explaining that the product wasn’t made in Europe.

The “fine print” solution could still prove to be untenable for U.S. manufacturers because of the expense associated with changing product labels.

“Since they’ve had some success (with other countries), they’re getting bolder in trying to expand this doctrine,” Alspaugh said.

“It is a bit of a slippery slope,” he added. “If you give up on cheeses, where do you close the door? There are lots of products that are culturally bonded to several countries.”

Fish & Richardson’s Hickey agreed.

“The fact Europe seems to be really pursuing these geographic indications more and more now (means) this proposed ban on cheese could lead to other proposed bans outside of cheese,” she said. “It’s probably not going to stop here.”

April 28th, 2014  |  Categories: News
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