The U.S. dairy industry has won an important legal battle in the conflict over common cheese names after a court recently sided with U.S. cheesemakers over their rights to use the name gruyere.
Europe had argued that only organizations from Switzerland and France should be allowed to use the name gruyere because the cheese originates from the Gruyere region of Switzerland. Lawyers from European Union organizations demanded that U.S. companies stop using the name and sought a U.S. trademark for exclusive use of “gruyere” in the U.S.
Cheesemakers from the U.S. and other countries have been making and selling “gruyere” for years, but several years ago, lawyers from Interprofession du Gruyère (IDG), a Switzerland-registered association, began sending threatening cease-and-desist letters to U.S. companies and dairy organizations that were using the term gruyere.
The Consortium for Common Food Names (CCFN), founded and staffed by the U.S. Dairy Export Council, refused to back down. When EU cheesemakers sought a U.S. trademark for exclusive use of the word in the U.S., CCFN organized several of its members and other supporters to make their case to the U.S. Trademark Trial & Appeal Board.
A 65-page ruling issued Aug. 5 found the CCFN-organized coalition’s arguments persuasive.
“After carefully considering all of the arguments and evidence of record, we find that purchasers and consumers of cheese understand the term ‘gruyere’ as a designation that primarily refers to a category within the genus of cheese that can come from anywhere,” the ruling said.
It added: “The record demonstrates that cheese identified as ‘gruyere’ is made in many locations, including Germany, Austria and the United States. Those knowledgeable of the World Championship Cheese Contest will know that non-Swiss and non-French producers of cheese (along with Swiss or French producers) are listed as winners in 'gruyere' categories for each year for which there is evidence."
Mark O'Keefe, vice president of editorial services at the U.S. Dairy Export Council, wrote in a recent blog that the war is far from over as European companies make increasingly aggressive claims to secure exclusive rights to generic food and beverage names used by U.S. companies. If Europe secures exclusive use of feta, parmesan, gorgonzola, asiago and other common cheese names, it could reduce consumption of U.S. cheese 21% over 10 years and cost U.S. dairy farmers a cumulative $59 billion, according to a study commissioned by CCFN.
"Gruyere is the perfect example of the European Commission’s hypocrisy when it comes to GIs [geographical indications],” CCFN executive director Jaime Castaneda said. “The only town named Gruyere in all of Europe is located in Switzerland. Despite this, the French have been producing gruyere for generations."
The European Commission maintains that because France had been producing this product for a long time, they should retain the right to keep making it and force Switzerland to allow the coexistence of both products.
Meanwhile, the EU actively works to prohibit U.S. and other producers from using the common terms parmesan and feta, despite long-standing production of those cheeses outside the regions where they originated, O’Keefe added.
Castaneda said this is a clear double standard that intentionally gives short shrift to the rights of long-established U.S. producers to continue to market commonly named cheeses.
The new ruling means all cheesemakers and their customers have the right to continue to sell gruyere in the U.S. Although IDG may appeal the ruling, this is an important decision that CCFN will continue to defend, regardless of how many times Europeans challenge this decision, O’Keefe continued.
“This is a victory for consumers, as it preserves a variety of choices for shoppers in the cheese case by safeguarding a term that has been used by cheesemakers outside of Europe for many years,” Castaneda said.
The Swiss producers can identify their gruyere in the U.S. market through use of the logo “Le Gruyere Switzerland AOC,” which was approved in 2013.
While an appeal is possible, the decision is a positive sign for the U.S. dairy industry. It follows other notable common name developments in the U.S. market in recent years, including Italy’s asiago consortium dropping its efforts last year to recognize “asiago” as a trademark in the U.S.