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Parmesan cheese could soon be getting a new name.

Food Fight

Europeans have always been possessive of their recipes. But in 1411, the law got involved. A bluish cheese with green veins and a strong odor that went by the name Roquefort was starting to appear in areas of France outside of the southern region where the cheese was first discovered a century before. (Yes, discovered, after a different type of cheese molded beyond recognition). Under pressure from the small coterie of cheese makers, the French parliament issued a decree that only cheese produced in the region of the cheese’s origin could use the name Roquefort.

Today, the name Roquefort is still limited to curds produced in Southern France in dark, damp caves that facilitates growth of the specific type of mold that makes Roquefort Roquefort.

In France and around the world, the cheese now has the oldest controlled appellation, a system devised in the early 20th century to protect the idea of terroir. That French term describes the unique recipe of geographic and climatic characteristics that gives food particular qualities. Most often, the controlled appellations are used with wine. Sauvignon blanc grapes from California needn’t be confused with sauvignon blanc grapes from France—the superiority of either, of course, depends on where you sit.

Terroir has always been about pride, and not the type of pride that welcomes imitation but the type that bans it. Yet it’s also been about economic protectionism, preventing an innovator in some other country from trying to recreate the je ne sais quoi of a food or beverage. Those requests only go so far; no country can legislate its authority over a specific food. But what it can do is claim a name.

There’s a clumsiness to food names and their international copyrights. Just because the French obsessively guard the term champagne—which refers to both the fermentation method and the type of grape used—doesn’t mean that no one else can produce it. It just means they have to call it something different. Sparkling wine was born first as the beverage that, while made in a very similar way as the original stuff, must not be called champagne.

But now, eyeing the economic boost that could come with protecting more of its native foods—especially as the world’s cheese appetite continues to march upward —the European Union wants to rope off more of its delicacies. In trade talks that began last year, European officials have asked the U.S. for exclusive production rights over Parmesan cheese. Despite its ubiquitous presence on American grocery store shelves, the Europeans say that it was originally intended to be made only in Parma, Italy. Similar claims are being made over Asiago, Gorgonzola, Feta, Fontina, Muenster, and Romano.

To maintain the trade ties that are lucrative for both the U.S. and Europe, controlled origins could be extended to other foods or European birth. Those reportedly being discussed are black forest ham (native to Germany), bologna (Italy) and Valencia oranges (Spain). The issue is quality control to ensure consumers are getting the real deal, the European negotiators say. But it’s hard to ignore the economic implication in Europe, still trying to pull itself out of the continent-wide recession.

As trade talks continue, neither side is publicly speculating where the negotiations may end. While Europe wants to pull more value out of their traditional exports, the U.S. wants to minimize the effects on American shoppers, who would pay more for a specialty product. The alternative, which is far more likely in the event of draconian name sanctions on popular foods, is simply a change of name. Ever heard of Aged-Grated White Cheese or Dry-Smoked Ham? New names would catch on, but U.S. government officials think they would also confuse consumers. Fearing the market changes that would have to come under such an unpalatable agreement, Senator Chuck Schumer tried to talk Europeans out of clinging to their old-world names. Muenster will always be Muenster, he said. No matter how you slice it.