The European Union has been on a mission for the past decade to ban the foreign use of food names like bologna, gruyere and feta cheese, depriving U.S. producers of markets around the world, but a bipartisan roster of lawmakers has stepped forward to try to curb the EU campaign.
Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., Roger Marshall, R-Kan., and Tina Smith, D-Minn., and House members Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., Jim Costa, D-Calif., Michelle Fischbach, R-Minn., and Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif., want to put a provision in the next farm bill to force the USDA and Office of the U.S. Trade Representative to make it a priority to stop the EU from using trade deals to convince other countries to protect geographical indications.
Foreign countries that strike deals on what the EU considers geographical indications pledge to not accept products like feta cheese unless it was brined in Greece or the island of Lesbos, thus taking away a market from the white cheese produced anywhere else — like perhaps Minnesota or California.
If it were up to the EU, gruyere could only be called gruyere if it were produced in the Alpine regions of France or Switzerland.
Baldwin, speaking earlier this year at a Capitol Hill event sponsored by the Consortium for Common Food Names, said the EU has to be stopped. She warned that other countries like India are following the European model, attempting to protect basmati rice.
The legislation — Safeguarding American Value-Added Exports (SAVE) Act — can essentially be broken into two parts. The first part would require the USDA to do something it's never done: Create an exhaustive list of common food names needed by U.S. producers but which are also at risk of being restricted by the EU.
The lack of any such list creates ambiguity and “enables the EU and other foreign countries to claim common names as GIs, and essentially shut American producers out of certain markets,” according to a synopsis of the legislation.
“For years, the European Union has abused geographical (indications) as a non-tariff trade barrier, limiting U.S. agriculture export opportunities simply because they rely on using common food names that have been established for decades,” Fischbach said in a statement.
And if U.S. producers lose the food names that they need for marketing and packaging, they lose business, Johnson said.
“Requiring U.S. producers to change the names of their food is confusing to consumers and costly to producers and manufacturers,” he added.
The second part of the legislation would direct the USTR to make geographical indications a priority whenever it negotiates with a foreign country.
The EU has already convinced countries like Japan, Mexico and Canada to incorporate the terms into trade deals, barring the U.S. from exporting some cheeses and wines, but there is still a lot of damage that can be prevented, according to groups such as the U.S. Dairy Export Council, National Milk Producers Federation, American Farm Bureau and the Wine Institute.
The Biden administration hasn't been negotiating any traditional, tariff-cutting free trade agreements, but it is reaching out to countries to try to improve trade relations with countries around the globe. The USTR is now negotiating the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework with Australia, Brunei, Fiji, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
“For years, the European Union has been using illegitimate GIs to boost its own producers at the expense of others, putting a tremendous political priority on giving European companies a leg up over producers in the U.S. and other countries,” said Jaime Castaneda, executive director of the Consortium for Common Food Names. “It is time that our government takes a more proactive approach to tackling this challenge so that we can turn the tide to stand up for food and beverage producers relying on common names.”
The U.S. cheese industry did score a victory domestically when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled in March that gruyere is a generic name that can be used by U.S. cheese makers. That also handed a loss to the French Syndicat Interprofessional du Gruyère and Swiss Interprofession du Gruyère, which applied to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for exclusive rights to use the name gruyere for their cheeses in the U.S. in 2015.
But most of the future battles to stop the EU will be fought on foreign soil by U.S. trade negotiators, according to lawmakers and farm groups.
“If the EU were to have it their way, Americans would no longer be able to drink champagne while eating gouda and prosciutto on crackers here in America,” Marshall said. “While this may at first seem like a small attack on the hors d’oeuvres industry, the consequences of the EU getting their way would go well beyond the charcuterie board.”