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  • U.S. cheesemakers get legal win to use common name 'gruyere' (INFOGRAPHIC)

    By USDEC August 11, 2020

    Ruling occurs after lawyers representing a Swiss GI organization sent threatening letters to U.S. companies using the term “gruyere.” 

    The U.S. dairy industry has won an important legal battle in the conflict over common cheese names.

    But the war is far from over as European companies make increasingly aggressive claims to secure exclusive rights to generic food and beverage names used by U.S. companies.

    Gruyere infographic2

    About more than just a name

    The issue is about more than just lexicon. It’s about geography, tradition, marketing, jobs and billions of dollars in future economic impact for the U.S. dairy industry, among other things.

    If Europe secures exclusive use of feta, parmesan, gorgonzola, asiago and other common cheese names, it could reduce consumption of U.S. cheese 21% over 10 years and cost U.S. dairy farmers a cumulative $59 billion, according to a study commissioned by the Consortium for Common Food Names (CCFN). 

    Dictionary definition of 'gruyere'

    The latest legal battle was over “gruyere.”

    Merriam-Webster dictionary defines gruyere as “a pressed whole-milk cheese of a pale yellow color and nutty flavor and usually with small holes.”

    Cheesemakers from the U.S. and other countries have been making and selling “gruyere” for years.

    But several years ago, lawyers from Interprofession du Gruyère (IDG), a Switzerland-registered association, began sending threatening cease-and-desist letters to U.S. companies and dairy organizations that were using the term gruyere.

    Castaneda: EU 'hypocrisy'

    "Gruyere is the perfect example of the European Commission’s hypocrisy when it comes to GIs,” said Jaime Castaneda, CCFN Executive Director. “The only town named Gruyere in all of Europe is located in Switzerland. Despite this, the French have been producing gruyere for generations."

    The European Commission maintains that because the French had been producing this product for a long time, they should retain the right to keep making it and force Switzerland to allow the coexistence of both products.

    Meanwhile, the EU actively works to prohibit U.S. and other producers from using the common terms parmesan and feta despite long-standing production of those cheeses outside of the regions where they originated.

    Castaneda said this is a clear double standard that intentionally gives short shrift to the rights of long-established U.S. producers to continue to market commonly named cheeses.

    Americans told they can call it 'alpine cheese' 

    Some letters went so far as to suggest alternative names for U.S.-made gruyere, including “alpine cheese,” “mountain cheese,” or “mountain-style cheese.”

    Wanting to avoid litigation, more than a dozen U.S. organizations, including several leading retailers, stopped using the name gruyere. Others persevered and several worked with CCFN to fight back.

    CCFN, founded and staffed by the U.S. Dairy Export Council, refused to back down. When European cheesemakers sought a U.S. trademark for exclusive use of the word in the United States, CCFN organized several of its members, as well as other supporters, to make its case to the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board.

    Ruling a victory for consumers

    A 65-page ruling issued August 5 found the CCFN-organized coalition’s arguments persuasive.

    “After carefully considering all of the arguments and evidence of record, we find that purchasers and consumers of cheese understand the term ‘gruyere’ as a designation that primarily refers to a category within the genus of cheese that can come from anywhere,” the ruling said.

    It also said: “The record demonstrates that cheese identified as ‘gruyere’ is made in many locations including Germany, Austria and the United States. Those knowledgeable of the World Championship Cheese Contest will know that non-Swiss and non-French producers of cheese (along with Swiss or French producers) are listed as winners in “gruyere” categories for each year for which there is evidence."

    U.S. cheesemakers can now sell 'gruyere'

    The ruling means all cheesemakers and their customers have the right to continue to sell gruyere in the United States. Although the Swiss GI entity may appeal the ruling, this is an important decision that CCFN will continue to defend regardless of how many times Europeans challenge this decision.

    “This is a victory for consumers as it preserves a variety of choices for shoppers in the cheese case by safeguarding a term that has been used by cheesemakers outside of Europe for many years,” Castaneda said. 

    The Swiss can identify their gruyere in the U.S. market through use of the logo “Le Gruyere Switzerland AOC”, approved in 2013.

    While an appeal is possible, the decision is a positive sign for the U.S. dairy industry. It follows other notable common name developments in the U.S. market in recent years, including Italy’s asiago consortium dropping its efforts last year to recognize “asiago” as a trademark in the U.S.

    CCFN opposes attempts to monopolize generic names

    CCFN supports valid geographical indications (GIs) — names associated with specialized foods from regions throughout the world that are used in a compound form — when used properly and not to establish unfair trade barriers to generic foods.

    “We continue to firmly oppose any attempt to monopolize generic names that have become part of the public domain, which is a blatant market-share grab designed to limit competition,” Castaneda said.

    While the U.S. dairy industry can celebrate the recent victory, the struggle over common food names continues, particularly in the arena of trade negotiations, where the EU has played hardball to protect what it considers GIs.

    Bipartisan letter sent

    A bipartisan move is afoot in the U.S. Congress to push back.

    On July 30, 61 U.S. senators sent U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Robert Lighthizer and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue a letter urging stronger international safeguards to protect U.S. exporters using common food and wine terms. 

    The letter requests that the U.S. government enhance their common food name protections as a core policy objective in all trade-related discussions.

    Mark O'Keefe is vice president of editorial services at the U.S. Dairy Export Council.

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    The U.S. Dairy Export Council fosters collaborative industry partnerships with processors, trading companies and others to enhance global demand for U.S. dairy products and ingredients. USDEC is primarily supported by Dairy Management Inc. through the dairy farmer checkoff. How to republish this post.  

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