Stew over European food names complicates trade talks

When is a cheese Parmesan? That depends on if you ask a cheese maker from Italy or Wisconsin

As Europe and the United States pursue a lofty vision of a free trade pact that removes tariffs and eases regulatory burdens, it's not just disputes over automobile safety and digital privacy that are creating tensions.

It is wine and cheese. And the sausage that goes with it.

European leaders say they can't allow cheese produced outside Italy to be passed off as Parmesan. Feta? That's only from Greece. If a wine label says Chateau, they say, it must be fermented in France.

And don't get them started on California Chablis, the white wine named for a village in the Burgundy region of France.

The aggressive campaign to protect European-designated product names with origins on the continent is gaining traction as countries in Asia and Latin America agree to the terms.

The intellectual property battle has caused near panic in the U.S. agriculture industry and is complicating prospects for a transatlantic trade agreement involving half the world's economy.

When U.S. trade negotiators met with their European counterparts last week at a conference center in a Washington suburb, the food fight was on the agenda. It will stay there when the talks resume in Europe later this year.

The negotiations are behind closed doors, but in public, the Obama administration is showing no sign of yielding to the European demands.

"In this area, we have long-standing differences with the EU," said Trevor Kincaid, a spokesman for the office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

The Obama administration is walking a tightrope, however, defending the rights of American companies to use what they consider generic European food names but avoiding heated rhetoric around the issue, which could upset the broader trade negotiations.

But pressure is growing from American food companies big and small.

Giant California vineyards don't want more countries to go the way of Canada, which has banned non-French companies from selling products labeled Champagne. California vineyards were forced to change their Canada-bound bubbly labels to "sparkling wine."

Artisan cheese makers in Wisconsin fear huge losses if they are banned overseas from selling American-made feta, Parmesan, Asiago, Havarti and other cheeses with European names.

Europeans say they are only protecting their heritage — and their wallets — from foreign imitations.

"If you make a cheese from Wisconsin, good, you can call it cheese of Wisconsin," said Elio De Tullio, a trademark attorney in Rome who represents numerous cheese producers in Italy. "But why do you call it Parma, or Taleggio or Provolone? It's not fair. Because you are trying to grab the reputation of the other. You should pay royalty."

The idea that Parmesan could only come from northern Italy is bewildering to the folks at Sartori Cheese in Plymouth, Wis., the self-named cheese capital of the world.

The founder, an Italian immigrant named Paolo Sartori, started making top-shelf hard cheeses 75 years ago after supposedly studying techniques from an Italian count he met while crossing the Atlantic.

In 2011, the Wisconsin company won top honors for best Parmesan at the highly respected Global Cheese Awards in Britain. The winning cheese, with its "subtle fruity note and finishes with a caramelized Parmesan flavor that blossoms on the palate," beat out the many Italian contenders.

Italian cheese makers squawked. And the next year, the Parmesan category was eliminated, replaced with a category for Parmigiano Reggiano, which can only legally come from certain regions in Italy.

"The Europeans are scared because there are a lot of U.S. companies that are making great cheese," said Jeff Schwager, president of Sartori Cheese.

The Wisconsin Legislature declared the European labeling campaign abusive and passed a unanimous resolution in April calling on the Obama administration to fight back.

Greek yogurt and even bologna, that staple of school lunch boxes, are also under siege.

Chobani, based in upstate New York and America's largest producer of Greek yogurt, was ordered to stop selling its product in Britain after a competitor complained in court that it was not made in Greece.

Dozens of U.S. senators rushed to defend American-made bologna earlier this year, calling on the Obama administration to challenge agreements in Latin American countries that could prohibit its sale there under that specific label.

The administration can do little more than raise objections. For now, the sausage clauses still stand in Latin America.

Europeans are also starting to explore agreements that reach beyond food and into textiles, which could include placing protections on products like Argyle socks.

At the core of the European push is economics, with pressure to appease powerful farm lobbies across the continent when cash-strapped governments are cutting agricultural subsidies and struggling with a debt crisis.

But European identity and culture are also at play. Local wines, cheeses and other items carry heavy emotional baggage.

"What they're arguing is, 'Look, this is a classic example of big international U.S. agribusiness trampling traditional food suppliers under their big Yankee boots,'" said Jacob Kirkegaard, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

He called the effort to protect product names a hot-button political issue in much of Europe, like gun control in the United States.

"It's an argument that in these local communities has significant political weight," he said.

Some American firms sympathize.

A coalition of high-end vintners in Napa, which has been working to protect the Napa Valley wine label from counterfeit and other misuse in China and elsewhere, says the U.S. effort to protect American use of European wine names is wrong.

"If we would like the respect of our name, we think others should have it as well," said Hailey Trefethen, a vintner at her family's vineyard here at the foot of the Napa Valley. The estate is a designated historic landmark where winemaking began 130 years ago, and the stately cellar is made with giant old-growth redwood beams.

"Some of the best sparkling wine made in the U.S. is coming out of Napa," she said. "None of them use the name Champagne. They could, legally. But they don't."

Trefethen's opinion is hardly prevailing among California winemakers, who sell millions of bottles labeled Champagne each year.

The Wine Institute, which advocates for more than 1,000 wineries in California, chafes at the notion that California vineyards could easily give up names on labels that their brands have been wrapped in for decades.

"It is easy to say it is not onerous for someone else to do something," said Tom LaFaille, international trade counsel at the San Francisco-based group. "It takes years to change a brand."

Twitter: @evanhalper, @dleelatimes

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
59°