The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Friday, March 14, 2014

Europe Declares War on American Cheese

What's in a Name? That Which We Call Parmesan by Any Other Name Would Taste as Salty. Or Would It?

After a recent round of trade talks, rumors are in the wind that the European Union is seeking to ban the use of European names on American-made cheeses. If the EU gets its way, cheeses like Parmesan, Feta, Gorgonzola, and Muenster made in America would have to be called something else.

This has a lot of American cheese producers and consumers up in arms. The consensus among manufacturers is that such a change would be confusing to customers, while the general populace tends to look upon it as an example of European elitism.

As I erect my flameproof shields, I come down firmly on the side of the Europeans.

The only real “Parmesan” cheese is Parmigiano-Reggiano, a cow's milk cheese produced in a particular geographic area in and around Parma, Italy. And under European law, it can only be produced in that area. Anything similar made elsewhere cannot, by law, be called Parmigiano-Reggiano. However, there is this workaround, this loophole of which manufacturers have taken advantage. “Parmigiano” is the Italian word for something that comes from Parma. “Parmesan” is the French term for the same thing. So people wishing to make a knock-off of Parmigiano-Reggiano have only to call their product by its French appellation to avoid the penalty of law. And the uninformed consumer, wrongly thinking he has purchased an Italian cheese product, buys the knock-off, thus leaving the Italian manufacturer, who has spent generations developing his market and producing his product, holding the dirty end of the stick. The same principle applies to other cheeses associated with other areas.

Look at it like this: let's say the great entrepreneur Ron Popeil made a widget. It was a good widget and he put a lot of time and thought into developing and marketing it under his “Ronco” brand. But I came up with a widget that looked and performed pretty much like Ron Popeil's widget, so I decided to call mine the “Ronco Widget” and sell it under that name. There would be cease and desist orders and trademark infringement lawsuits flying like confetti. Why? A lot of people think my widget is better. Doesn't matter. The other guy named Ron has got the law protecting his brand on his side.

It's not a matter of snobbery or elitism on the part of European producers; it's just a matter of protecting their product by enforcing already existing laws. Except European agricultural laws don't apply to American food manufacturers. The proposed EU measures would simply ensure that they do.

Laws governing protected geographic status of agricultural products are common in Europe, but they are not unheard of in the United States. For example, anybody in America can grow sweet onions in their backyards. But their backyards had better be in or around Vidalia, Georgia if they want to call their onions “Vidalias.” And if you want to grow Russet potatoes in your garden, go for it. Just don't tell people they're “Idaho Russets” if you live in, say, Michigan.

“Well, we think onions grown in the Walla Walla Valley are every bit as good as Vidalias. What makes the elitist snobs in Georgia think their onions are better than ours?” Honestly, the average consumer probably couldn't tell the difference in a blind taste test. It's not that the Georgia-grown product is superior to the one grown in Washington. It's just that Georgia growers protected their product by getting the Georgia legislature to pass the “Vidalia Act of 1986,” limiting production of a particular strain of onion to particular counties within the state. And then in 1989, they got the USDA to issue a Federal Marketing Order defining that production area. No different than what Italy has done with so-called Parmesan cheese, except we in America don't recognize the authority of their agricultural laws. And I would expect that if an Italian farmer showed up at an Italian vegetable market with a truckload of home-grown Vidalia onions, the USDA and the State of Georgia would have a tough time shutting him down.

An Italian immigrant named Errico Auricchio heads up BelGioioso Cheese in Green Bay, Wisconsin. I gotta tell you, they make some darn fine cheeses there and I use them all the time. They are among the best Italian-style cheeses made in the United States. But I know they're not really Italian. Are they as good as the authentic imported cheeses I buy at more upscale markets? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. But that's not really the point.

In a statement to the Associated Press, Auricchio said, “We have invested years and years making these cheeses. You cannot stop the spreading of culture, especially in the global economy.” Who's trying to stop the spread of culture? C'mon, Errico. You make great cheese in the traditional Italian manner, but unless you buy all your milk and rennet and such in Italy and have your cheese made there and shipped to your factory in Green Bay, you're only making Italian style cheese. Cheese made in the same manner as it is made in Italy. It is not real Italian cheese and should not be marketed as such. (We won't even discuss the issue of the cheese-flavored sawdust Kraft sells in the green cans, but that alone is good reason for the Italians to be upset.)

Protectionist American lawmakers are screaming about the effects such an onerous regulation would have on American small businesses. I don't see the problem. Canada and other parts of the Americas have acquiesced to similar requests from the EU and their markets don't seem to be collapsing because of it. In Canada, they just add the word “style” to their packaging and marketing. Problem solved by way of a concept that is foreign to American marketers; truth in advertising. After all, that “Parmesan” cheese they sell at Kroger under the “Organic Valley” name is not an Italian cheese. It came from La Farge, Wisconsin, not Parma, Italy. It may be Italian style, but it's not Italian made. So what's so wrong with asking that the labeling accurately reflect the product? It's Parmesan-style cheese. Why would that affect American small businesses? Nobody is asking them to stop making cheese; the EU is just asking for truth in advertising and accuracy in labeling. And as far as being confusing to consumers, what's so confusing about adding the word “style?” That's what they do in Canada. Does that mean Canadian consumers are smarter?

Give the EU a break, people. If you don't want Italians selling Idaho potatoes in Emilia-Romagna, then don't sell “Parmesan” cheese in Boise. Fair is fair.

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