- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 28, 2003

Feta cheese should not be called feta cheese when Allison Hooper makes it in Vermont, the European Union said yesterday.

Ms. Hooper, an owner of the Vermont Butter and Cheese Co., and her goats produce a variety of artisan-crafted cheeses called Bonne-Bouche, Chevre, creamy goat cheese and feta.

But yesterday, the 15-nation European Union announced a list of 41 products with names it wants tied to specific geographical locations and traditional means of production.

The European Union will push trade ministers to consider a worldwide register for the products during agricultural negotiations at the World Trade Organization that start Sept. 10 in Cancun, Mexico.

If approved, the 146 WTO members, including the United States, would not be able to call sparkling wine produced outside the Champagne region of France “champagne,” for example.

Wine and spirit names like bordeaux and ouzo, pork products like prosciutto di Parma, and cheeses such as gorgonzola and feta would have “geographical indications” from Europe, be entered on a global register and countries would be prohibited from using the specific names.

“Abuses … undermine the reputation of EU products and create confusion for consumers. We want this to cease for the most usurped products in the world,” EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy said in a statement.

The issue has not caused any confusion for consumers in Websterville, Vt., home of the Vermont Butter and Cheese Co., Ms. Hooper said. But there is a difference in the U.S. and EU products, she said, especially in some mass-produced cheeses made from cow’s milk but still called feta.

“So I wouldn’t begrudge them that, and if we have to change the name of our cheese, so be it,” she said.

But the issue will not be settled so easily.

The United States has resisted taking up the issue, saying many of the product names have become generic over time.

“We are a country of immigrants. People brought knowledge, adapted it and now consumers have come to recognize those names as a type of product, not a location,” said Stephanie Childs, spokeswoman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America in Washington.

The grocery manufacturers,and other groups that represent farmers, winemakers and companies like Anheuser-Busch, Kraft Foods and Land O’ Lakes, last month wrote to U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick, urging him to reject the EU proposal.

“The EU proposal would grant European producers and others exclusive rights to make and market many products using names that U.S. producers have invested enormous resources in developing and protecting. Moreover, it would lead to a narrowing of choices that are now available to American consumers and inevitably increase the costs to those consumers,” the letter said.

The U.S. Trade Representative’s Office did not immediately comment.

In 1994, the United States and European Union agreed to recognize a handful of each other’s products. Europeans respect the names bourbon whiskey and Tennessee whiskey as distinctive U.S. products; in return U.S. producers cannot use the names Scotch whisky, Irish whiskey, cognac, armagnac, calvados and brandy de Jerez.

The Europeans said they will be pushing hard for tougher rules to protect “high quality and regional products.” A well-established link to the territories where they are produced is an essential part of the value for many agricultural products, the European Union said.

And it expects support from other countries. India would like Darjeeling tea and Switzerland would like Etivaz cheese recognized, for example.

“Together with our allies, the EU will do its utmost to achieve better protection for regional quality products,” EU Farm Commissioner Franz Fischler said.

“This is not about protectionism. It is about fairness,” he added.

EU spokesman Gregor Kreuzhuber said the bloc planned to seek protection at a later stage for 600 more products, the Associated Press reported.

Even within the European Union, though, the issue of geographic-based labels is not settled. Denmark, for example, wants the right to make feta, too.

In the meantime, many U.S. food companies hope the labels can wait.

“I think if something like that would go into effect, we would have to re-educate the public on what our cheeses are. It’s taken centuries to establish generic names,” said Paula Lambert, president of Dallas’ Mozzarella Co.

Under the proposed EU rules, mozzarella di Bufala Campana would be tied to a location in Italy. The Mozzarella Co. also makes a feta cheese.

She understands both sides of the issue but is reluctant to endorse the European plan.

“I understand how Champagne and Cognac feel about it, but I don’t want it to affect me,” she said.

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