Leahy, Sanders Part Of Effort To Protect Dairy Farmers And Cheesemakers From EU Bid To Block Use Of Generic Cheese Names

WASHINGTON, March 12 – Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders are part of a bipartisan coalition of U.S. senators asking U.S. trade negotiators to block an initiative by the European Union to prohibit the use of generic cheese names, like Muenster, Havarti, feta, Brie or ricotta, on cheeses made in Vermont and across the country.

In a bipartisan letter signed by 55 senators, Leahy and Sanders urged the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Trade Representative to push back on the EU initiative, which could confuse consumers and hurt Vermont dairy farmers and cheesemakers.    

Leahy said, “Vermont is well known for our high quality cheeses carrying these and other names, and Vermont Cheddar has become the gold standard.  This proposal is foolish, short-sighted and only serves to confuse customers and hurt those who make fine American products that compete with imports.”

Sanders said, “We should be doing everything we can to promote the outstanding cheeses made in Vermont.”

The EU claims that dairy products bearing names such as Asiago, feta, Parmesan and Muenster are indicative of their countries of origin and should only be produced in those countries.  However, the United States has a long history of producing quality cheeses carrying the same names. If the United States were to be subjected to a ban of these traditional brand names, consumers may be confused, and U.S. dairy producers could suffer.

Bob Wellington Senior Vice President at Agri-Mark Cooperative said.  “Our family dairy farms who own the Cabot Cheese business are proud to combine our unique brand name to these generic names, producing award-winning Cabot Cheddar cheese and Cabot Muenster cheeses as examples. European attempts to deny our right to label our cheese as a Muenster or Cheddar variety in any market is not only wrong, it would be misleading to consumers and is clearly just an effort to hurt American dairy businesses and American family dairy farms.”

Leahy and Sanders’ efforts are supported by Vermont’s dairy farmers, Vermont’s Artisanal cheese makers the National Milk Producers Association, U.S. Dairy Export Council, International Dairy Foods Association, American Farm Bureau Federation, Kraft, Leprino Foods and others.

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The full text of the letter can be seen below:

Dear Secretary Vilsack and U.S. Trade Representative Froman:

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.

In country after country, the EU has been using its free trade agreements (FTAs) to persuade its trading partners to impose barriers to U.S. exports under the guise of protection for its geographical indications. This trade-damaging practice is concerning anywhere, but it is most deeply troubling where the U.S. has an established FTA or has been actively in the process of negotiating a new agreement. For example, Canada agreed as part of its recently concluded FTA with the EU to impose new restrictions on the use of "feta" and other common cheese names. Common names for products such as "feta" are clearly generic in Canada, as they are in many other countries. These restrictions not only threaten harm to the companies currently involved in the Canadian market, but they would also impair market access for U.S. dairy products that we are now attempting to secure under ongoing trade negotiations. Similar trade barriers are cropping up throughout Latin America as well and are under discussion in many Asian countries involved in negotiations with the EU.

Reportedly, the EU now seeks to more directly impair U.S. competition by imposing restrictions on the use of common food names through TTIP. In the states that we represent, many small or medium-sized family owned farms and firms could have their business unfairly restricted by the EU's push to use geographical indications as a barrier to dairy trade and competition. As we begin to engage in TTIP negotiations that are ultimately intended to bring about a better economic climate on both sides of the Atlantic by lowering barriers to trade, we strongly oppose the EU's gratuitous use of GIs as a protectionist measure.

We ask that USTR and USDA continue to work aggressively to ensure the EU's GI efforts on commonly used cheese names do not impair U.S. businesses' ability to compete domestically or internationally and that you make this a top priority through both official TTIP and bilateral negotiations.