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US judge says French, Swiss cheesemakers’ complaint full of holes

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After a ruling by a US federal judge, cheese sold as ‘gruyere’ in America need not be produced near Gruyere, Switzerland. — AFP file photo

WASHINGTON (Jan 13): A consortium of European cheesemakers has lost its case in US federal court, in which it sought to limit the usage of the term “gruyere” to only those cheeses produced near the town of Gruyeres, Switzerland.

When shoppers in Europe buy gruyere cheese, they can be sure that the soft, nutty wheel has been crafted by French or Swiss cheesemakers using a specific process, in a specific geographical region.

That is because cheesemakers near Gruyeres, like bubbly-producers in the Champagne region of France, have successfully lobbied European regulators to protect their exclusive right to the term.

Those same cheesemakers had hoped to extend their legal authority to cover all of the United States, stating in their complaint that local ingredients and traditional methods “assure the connection between the geographic region and the quality and characteristics of the final product.”

“Cheese made in Wisconsin cannot duplicate the unique flavor of genuine gruyere cheese made in Switzerland or France,” they argued.

But an American judge did not find their arguments sufficiently convincing, declaring in a decision made public last week that the term gruyere had become too “generic” in the United States to warrant such exclusivity.

“Decades of importation, production, and sale of cheese labeled gruyere produced outside the Gruyere region of Switzerland and France have eroded the meaning of that term and rendered it generic,” said Judge TS Ellis in his 32-page decision, issued mid-December.

The judge also noted that “from 2010–2020, the majority of gruyere-labeled cheese imported into the United States was imported from the Netherlands and Germany, not from Switzerland or France.”

Gruyere producers in Switzerland also control a US patent for the “Le Gruyere Switzerland AOC” logo, which they can use to distinguish their product, noted Ellis.

The cheesemakers on Monday said that they plan to appeal the ruling.

Representatives of the American dairy industry, however, hailed the decision as a “landmark victory”.

“This win sets a vital precedent in the much larger, ongoing battle over food names in the United States,” said Jaime Castaneda, executive director of the Consortium for Common Food Names.

During negotiations over the Transatlantic Free Trade Area, the European Union had attempted to secure geographic-label protections in the United States for about 200 products — such as Chablis, Parmesan and Bolognese — but a final treaty was never produced.

American regulators do strictly control the usage of certain culinary labels — requiring Roquefort and Cognac to be produced in their eponymous French cities — but they often rule in favor of domestic producers, who form large associations that speak with one powerful voice.

For example, the Association for Dressings and Sauces, representing the nations’ condiment producers, won a favorable decision Wednesday to deregulate usage of the term “French dressing”.

For more than 70 years, federal officials had stipulated the ingredients in French dressing, which has little in common with what is generally consumed on salads in France. — AFP