What’s in a Name?

The recent furor over The E.U.’s proposal that U.S. foodmakers be restricted from using names with historical ties to Europe has me thinking. As a twelve-year veteran of the specialty cheese industry, my kneejerk sympathies (dare I say it) have lain across the pond. For decades, the countries that now comprise the European Union have been regulating and protecting their most unique foodstuffs—items made with specific ingredients, following traditional recipes, produced in tight, localized environments. It was these perseverant bites of history that first seduced me into a cheese career.

Now, in addition to multiple country appellation systems, the European Union has the PDO (protected designation of origin). Its function is the same, and so singular products like French Champagne (made only in the Champagne region, in-bottle secondary fermentation, specific grapes, etc) are protected—in most parts of the globe—from shoddy imitation.

And so this latest proposal, that would prohibit American makers from using European cheese names, led the cheese nerd in me to think, “Yes! Parmigiano Reggiano (regulated down to its fat content, aroma, and, wonderfully, “crust thickness”) IS a unique cheese and its name should be accordingly restricted. Real feta, produced in Greece from sheep and goat milk, bears no relation to the insipid salt crumbles most of us find in American supermarkets. You can’t call Grade A beef ‘prime,’ right?”

Then I re-read the proposal more closely. A PDO cheese is a different animal entirely from a “name with historical ties to Europe.” Under this logic we’d have to rename nearly every city and town in the Eastern United States. Our country’s legacy is nothing but one big, historical tie to Europe. “Cheddar” can be dozens of different cheeses, each tasty in its own right, but hardly consistent in age, flavor, shape or even milk. “Swiss cheese,” last I checked in Switzerland, (a country it must be noted that has repeatedly elected not to join the E.U.) is a troublesome catch-all for makers trying to differentiate their unique, handcrafted cheeses. There’s a reason why these generic terms were never protected in their countries of origin—they didn’t offer anything unique enough to warrant lionization.

What they did offer was a reference point—a gateway-- and that’s an even better reason why they shouldn’t be protected now. In the past hundred years the U.S. has grown from immigrant pockets producing approximations of the foods they remembered from home to the world’s largest producer (and exporter) of cheese. The dozen or so cheese types now up for debate (yes, all with historical ties to Europe) have become the defacto brands for emerging markets. The U.S. was that emerging market forty years ago and cheeses like “Swiss,” “Parmesan,” and “Brie” became our alphabet for speaking in cheese.  

“I like hard, grating stuff.”

“I want some of the soft, white cheese.”

These are the first steps to building a market (any market, anywhere in the world other than Europe) where hundreds of varieties of a given food simply aren’t part of the national culture. It’s the laying of this foundation that enables consumers to advance, to branch out, to become experts, and to spend more money. It’s a model that’s well known in fashion (H&M) or home furnishings (Ikea): invoke the couture that consumers can’t afford or aren’t ready for, and build a vocabulary for future buyers.

Here’s the thing about the true PDO foods of Europe: by their very nature they are finite. They are protected because they are traditional, handcrafted, not commodified.  Five designated provinces in Italy can’t produce enough Parmigiano Reggiano for the entire world to grate, and if they could the costs would be too high for much of the market to bear. Which means someone needs to be making the cheese that gets new consumers in the door. Ironically, that someone could be the E.U. as easily as the U.S. (I wonder, for example, if, when a fair trade agreement between the E.U. and South Korea banned the sale of U.S. made fontina, the Danish, Swedish and French imitations of PDO Fontina val d’Aosta were allowed. If so, score one for the E.U.)

Look no further than your own backyard for proof that it takes less than a generation to lead consumers through the gateway cheeses and turn them into discerning and committed connoisseurs. Here in the States hundreds of cheesemakers are now making thousands of cheeses that are marketed and sold under singular names: one producer, one cheese name, no Swiss, Parmesan or Brie in sight. These foods sell at two to three times the price of the generics, their sales grow by double digits each year and it is they who are the true competitors of Europe’s finest, and most traditional, cheeses. A rising tide may lift all boats, but what the E.U. seems unable to recognize is that an open source cheese builds global consumption.