Cheese is a wonderful thing. Parmesan is the ultimate topper for a piping-hot mound of spaghetti. Mozzarella serves as the gooey glue between layers of lasagna. Feta — it’s perfect crumbled over a leafy green salad.
We Americans love our cheese, and that’s a good thing. I can’t imagine the already depressed dairy market without it.
While cheese is not going away, the way manufacturers label this dairy delight might be if the European Union gets its way.
The EU wants to seize the common names that U.S. marketers have used for generations for cheeses, meat and other food products by officially designating them as geographical indications (GI). Basically, because foods like mozzarella and feta originated in specific parts of the world, Europe feels they should only be labeled as such when they come from that area. In doing so, which it already has done in the EU, it provides a monopoly on the market by restricting what most people believe are generic names. So, feta might instead be called a “white brined cheese,” mozzarella “a water buffalo milk curd cheese” and parmesan a “hard grating cheese.” I know, mozzarella is mostly made from cow’s milk now, but originally it wasn’t.
While the EU cannot enforce such labeling in other countries, it’s found a way to impose restrictions by making it a condition of bilateral trade deals.
Type of cheese, not where it’s produced
These customary and generic names have been around for decades and I, like most consumers, look at it as a type of cheese — not a specific cheese produced in a specific part of the world. Just because the package says mozzarella, I did not assume it came from Italy.
The EU wants to ban the use of dozens of cheese, wine and meat terms and label images because doing so tips trade in its favor, while ignoring the impact on producers, buyers and consumers.
The U.S. dairy industry — and the U.S. economy — could be hit with $9.5 billion to $20 billion in lost revenue if the EU is successful in expanding restrictions on the use of these generic food terms, according to a new study conducted by Informa Agribusiness Consulting, commissioned by the Consortium for Common Food Names and the U.S. Dairy Export Council.
The study, which provides timely information considering U.S.-EU trade negotiations, examines the potential impact the EU’s aggressive GI agenda would have if imposed on a broad variety of U.S. cheeses and markets.
Confusion and alienation of both domestic and international consumers, according to the study, would lead to a dramatic drop in demand for U.S. cheese. Prices could fall 14%, and consumption of U.S.-produced cheeses could drop by 306 million pounds to 814 million pounds in the first three years. At the same time, EU cheese exports could see a surge of 13%, thereby exacerbating the existing $1.4 billion U.S.-EU dairy trade deficit.
Effect on broader dairy industry
The impact of GI restrictions would also have grave effects on the broader dairy industry, through plummeting milk prices and shifting demand, as well as on the broader U.S. economy. Informa’s study reveals that between 108,000 and 223,000 jobs could be at risk, while gross domestic product (GDP) could fall $12 billion to $25 billion over three years.
I don’t think the use of GI is wrong, as it serves as a wonderful marketing tool. We have protected the terms 100% Florida orange juice, Washington state apples and Idaho potatoes; but for the EU to go after feta because it originated in Greece, and Parmesan because it came from Italy many decades ago, is a stretch that is clearly more about reeling in the market to be served by only one set of suppliers.
We are pushing back. The Consortium for Common Food Names was formed and is an independent, international nonprofit alliance that represents the interests of consumers, farmers, food producers and retailers from around the world. Its mission is to preserve the legitimate rights of these parties to use common names, to protect the value of internationally recognized brands and to prevent new barriers to commerce.
The CCFN says EU’s guise as GI protection is, in fact, camouflaged protectionism. I’d agree.