A battle over cheese could prove a major problem for the TAFTA/TTIP negotiations currently getting down to serious discussions. Here's the background, as reported by the Guardian:
As part of trade talks, the European Union wants to ban the use of European names like parmesan, feta and gruyere on cheese made in the United States.
Needless to say, some people in the US are not best pleased with what they call "an absurd European initiative":
The argument is that the American-made cheeses are shadows of the original European varieties and cut into sales and identity of the European cheeses. The Europeans say parmesan should only come from Parma, Italy, not those familiar green cylinders that American companies sell. Feta should only be from Greece, even though feta isn't a place. The EU argues it "is so closely connected to Greece as to be identified as an inherently Greek product."
U.S. Senators Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) are working together to protect American dairy farmers and producers from an absurd European initiative that would change common names for cheeses Americans enjoy every day.
Techdirt has written about such geographical indications (GIs) before. There, the situation involving an attempt to protect "Belgian chocolate" was pretty trivial; now the stakes are much higher. Here's part of the Senators' letter:
In a bipartisan letter signed by more than 50 of their Senate colleagues, Sens. Toomey and Schumer urged the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the United States Trade Representative (USTR) to fight European Union (EU) efforts to prohibit American dairy producers from using dozens of common cheese names. The EU claims that dairy products bearing names such as asiago, feta, parmesan, and muenster are "geographical indicators" and can only be appropriately displayed on products made in certain areas of Europe.
Dear Secretary Vilsack and U.S. Trade Representative Froman:
As that shows, there is pressure on the US negotiators to reject completely any EU calls for GIs in TAFTA/TTIP. Equally, the EU has made it clear that extending GI protection around the world is a priority. The European Commission says on its Web page dedicated to GIs:
We commend your past work to fight the growing geographical indication (GI) restrictions promoted by the European Union (EU). This trade barrier is of great concern to dairy and other food manufacturers in our states. On their behalf, we urge you to continue to push back against the EU's efforts to restrict our cheese exports, particularly to nations with which we already have free trade agreements. In addition, we urge you to make clear to your EU counterparts that the U.S. will reject any proposal in the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations now underway that would restrict in any way the ability of US producers to use common cheese names.
The EU supports better protection of geographical indications internationally due to the increasing number of violations throughout the world. The EU is active in multilateral and bilateral negotiations protecting EU geographical indications.
Moreover, in the Canada-EU trade agreement (CETA), whose status is still unclear, Canada seems to have acquiesced to EU demands, as this story on CBC News explains:
The Europeans are particularly pleased about realizing all their goals in the area of geographic indicators or GIs, those products named for their origins, such as Gorgonzola or Feta cheeses.
After that win, the EU will doubtless be looking for similar concessions from the US -- concessions that are unlikely to be granted, in view of the objections of the US dairy industry:
"Canada -- not traditionally a friend of GIs -- has accepted that all types of food products will be protected at a comparable level to that offered by EU law and that additional GIs can be added in the future," says the document, noting 125 of Europe’s 145 "priority GIs" will enjoy full protection.
On cheeses, the document notes existing Canadian products are grandfathered, but new entrants will need to be identified by such modifiers as "style,” "type" or "imitation." The paper suggests winning the GI battle will give European manufacturers a significant leg up when competing with Canadian producers of similar products.
The National Milk Producers Association, International Dairy Foods Association, U.S. Dairy Export Council, American Farm Bureau Federation, Kraft, Leprino Foods, and others support Sens. Toomey and Schumer's efforts.
Given those strongly-opposing views, it's unclear how the issue of GIs will be resolved in the TAFTA/TTIP talks -- or even whether it can be resolved. It would be rather ironic if the biggest trade deal in history collapsed not because of clashes over major issues like corporate sovereignty or the Precautionary Principle, but over the names for cheese.
Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+