John Umhoefer: EU restrictions on Old World names would cost cheese makers millions

Wisconsin has been watching California close the cheesemaking gap for several years now, but if the European Union has its way the battle between Badger and Bruin will be a minor event in a world dairy war.

Europe, like Wisconsin, is intent on branding its products. And cheese is one of its targets. In September, the European Union charged that other countries had been abusing the names of regional EU delicacies, and listed 41 wines and cheeses for which it sought trademark protection at the World Trade Organization talks in Cancun, Mexico.

The measure failed, but John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, said it may reappear and if passed, prohibit producers from using familiar cheese names like Cheddar, Mozzarella, Feta and Gorgonzola that were brought to the region by immigrants.

Worse yet, in the world of tariffs, cheese is small potatoes and could become a sacrificial pawn in trade negotiations between nations, says Umhoefer, whose 112-year-old association represents 150 cheese processors and 300 suppliers around the state. editor Brian Leaf spoke recently with Umhoefer about the issue, officially known as Geographic Indicators.

Leaf: We’ve heard about the globalization of business, but most people think it just pertains to manufacturing. But we’re talking about cheese here. Can you sum up the issue?

Umhoefer: In Europe, there have been products that are protected by region for decade. Generally, these have applied to wines, meats and some cheeses. The European Union is trying to take that idea globally.

Leaf: So what’s at stake for Wisconsin?

Umhoefer: The possibility that these protected names would apply globally. We would not be able to use words like Feta, Parmesan, Mozzarella, in the United States.

Leaf: That would shake up the marketing department at every dairy in the country!

Umhoefer: Yes. We’re concerned that it would certainly confuse our shoppers and would create an odd situation where words people have used all their lives would be illegal. You couldn’t shop for Mozzarella any more. We’d have to call it something else.

Leaf: Have there been any studies out there about what this would cost Wisconsin cheese makers?

Umhoefer: There have not been any studies yet. Certainly, it would cost millions of dollars to first, just relabel products, and hundreds of millions to remarket and re-educate consumers.

Leaf: What is the status of this proposal?

Umhoefer: The proposal, like many things, stalled when the Cancun discussions of the World Trade Organization failed in September. So it is difficult to say where this will be taken up again or how. Nothing is off the table. It is simply been delayed because of the fact those talks did not proceed well.

Leaf: Are there other products besides cheese that this would affect?

Umhoefer: There have always been a great litany of wines, but many of these names have already been protected. For instance, you cannot make a champagne in the United States. You can’t make a Burgundy. These are already protected. There are a couple of cheeses, too, that are protected. There is a system even in the United States where a foreign country can certify their trademark. Two that exist right now are Roquefort and Parmigiano Reggiano from Italy. You can’t make a Roquefort cheese in the United States. And you can’t make a Parmigiano Reggiano. But those are the only two registered with the USDA.

Leaf: Have there been any talks of licensing agreements where you could continue to make Cheddar under license from the owner?

Umhoefer: That never seems to be a version that is discussed. These tend to be all or nothing. In fact, as proposed, you wouldn’t be able to use terms such as “like” or “style.” You could not say ‘I am making a Feta-style cheese.’ That would still violate what they are seeking to protect. You would not be able to license the word. You would not be able to reference the word.

Leaf: What are your thoughts on where this is headed?

Umhoefer: What this really boils down to is trade – free trade and fair trade. The Europeans are losing their subsidies, they aren’t able to pay at a level they have subsidized their dairy industry in the past. I think the concern is that the dairy industries will be vulnerable to imports. They’ve managed to keep cheeses out of Europe and this is a way to erect a trade barrier. If they own all the words that are cheeses and only they can make them, then they’ve erected a barrier to prevent us from coming across the ocean with our Feta, our Parmesan, and trying to sell them in Europe. If you can’t close the borders, then you can take the trade away from us. So there is a political and a trade aspect to this.

Leaf: Is this something you think will ever be a reality?

Umhoefer: It’s possible. There are many things that are discussed in World Trade Organization negotiations, everything from software to airplane sales to grains. What we see ourselves is as a little issue in a big pond. We’re concerned that this issue may be seen as something that is tradeable. If the U.S. decides it would like to have an agreement that would keep some billion-dollar industries happy they might be willing to offer this as a negotiating point to Europe. In other words, we’re not a high clout industry in these world trade negotiations.

Leaf: So what could happen is they could trade cheese for steel, drop the steel tariffs and surrender cheese.

Umhoefer: They might not see, or care, how this will impact our industry.

Leaf: What are you trying to do to counter this?

Umhoefer: There has been good work done on the national level. There has been a hearing in the U.S. House Agricultural Committee and Congress has been well alerted to the problem. It immediately strikes people as ridiculous, that you could suddenly take words from our mouths, that we could no longer say Feta or Mozzarella on our packaging. If you were walking down the ailse of the grocery store., what if the words mayonnaise and ketchup were taken away? What would you call these things? That’s what people find amusing. If not strange.

It’s something we take very seriously, It’s taking a way the livelihoods of our cheese industry. We’re an immigrant nation. We make the cheeses from whence we came. We make cheddar and mozzarella and provolone. There are very few cheeses that you would call native American cheeses. It comes down to Monterrey Jack, Colby, Brick. But you’re talking about 5 percent max of all the cheeses made in the U.S.

I think Americans would like Cheddar to be called Cheddar. I would think we would have their support.

Leaf: So we may have a bunch of cheese bootleggers out there, selling cheeses under the old names?

Umhoefer: The black market for cheese.