EU fights for food names, WI farmers cry foul

If the European Union gets its way, pizza will probably be topped with "soft, mild, white cheese" and not "mozzarella." It won't be Parmesan sprinkled on salads, nor will it be feta in sandwiches.

In order to safeguard against shoddy imitations and less-than-pure impostors, the EU submitted a proposal to the World Trade Organization a year ago this month to protect "geographical indications" such as the ones above – food names, in other words, that are derived from specific European geographic locations, such as Parmesan cheese from Parma, Italy.

The names also imply the product was made in a certain, often traditional, fashion with specific ingredients in a certain region, according to the EU.

Cheeses, listed alongside wines, meats and alcoholic beverages, feature heavily in the list, and Wisconsin cheese makers aren't happy about it.

"We think that the cheeses they've chosen have been used in the U.S. for 50 or 60 years," said John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association. "The time has passed for them to claim these as their own."

Umhoefer said his group would accept the legal protection of a highly specific name, such as Parmigiano Reggiano, the name for cheese made in the Parma region of Italy, but not more generic terms, like Parmesan.

Not everyone is opposed to the idea, however.

"It's feasible, and it's been done in other areas," said Andrea Schneider, an associate professor of law who specializes in international law. "It definitely could happen."

In fact, Schneider said, similar efforts on smaller scales have succeeded, such as in the champagne industry: only wine made in the Champagne district of France can be labeled champagne; everything else must be "sparkling white wine."

Altogether, "A Proposal for Modalities in the WTO Agriculture Negotiations" categorizes 40 foods and beverage names as "geographical indications," according to Peter Ungphakorn, a spokesman for the WTO.

The document was issued as a result of a recent shift in the preferences of European consumers. Top-grade food, stamped, sealed or otherwise marked with an assurance of quality, is in high demand.

"'Quality' has become the watchword," the report says.

European farmers and food processors, the report continues, can achieve financial success by providing such food in smaller amounts, rather than by "producing large amounts of subsidized products."

The report alleges the profitable relationship hangs in precarious balance, however, as the trend is expected to die should consumers lose confidence in the integrity of "quality" foods.