The United States exports more cheese than any other country in the world (Wisconsin alone produces 25 percent of what's shipped abroad), but a new challenge from the European Union might change the names U.S. customers see on their cheese wrappers. The EU wants certain cheeses — primarily those that have place-names or associations with European history — to be labeled as such only if they are from that place/region or have a history of being made there.
Think Parmesan, Gruyere, Havarti, Roquefort and Brie.
One one side, American cheesemakers are saying that the names have been used in the U.S. for years — in some cases a century — and to change them now would confuse consumers. But the EU, which has been losing market share of cheese exports to the U.S. for quite some time, asserts that where the cheeses come from matters, and that European cheeses aren't the same as American, despite the names.
The discussion has come up as part of negotiations in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.
Since cheese flavor, for most aged cheeses, depends heavily on local bacteria and molds, there is certainly a flavor difference between cheeses from different places. In some cases, American cheesemakers have made up their own new names for cheeses — and simply describe them as "Brie-like," for example, but that's not common practice.
It seems that, in the end, having more specific labels would both protect European cheeses, and give consumers around the world a quick and easy way of knowing whether a cheese is from Europe or somewhere else. Since American cheesemaking has matured in the last few decades, looking on the bright side, encouraging Americans to use new names might also give U.S. cheesemakers a way to likewise distinguish their product. I can see, say, New England blue cheeses having a different name from those made in Wisconsin, that's different too from those veiny blocks made in Oregon or California.
The U.S. has already made rules around what names certain other foods can be labeled: Vidalia onions can only come from certain counties in Georgia, for instance.
One cheese that's not likely to be part of the kerfuffle is cheddar. "Cheddar is made in Australia, in the U.S., in Canada. It's made in probably seven or eight countries," Kyle Cherek, host of the TV show "Wisconsin Foodie," told NPR.
Of course, you can always make your own cheese at home, and call it whatever you please; these rules are only for the commercial sale of cheese.
Related on MNN: