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Column: Americanizing cheese involves melting pot


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What’s in a name? Does a cheese by any other name smell as pungent and taste as sharp? This is the question I have been pondering with Shakespearean intensity ever since I read that the European Union wants to ban the use of the names of some cheeses made in the United States.

As part of the current free-trade agreement, discussions in Brussels between the U.S. and the European Union, a proposal has been offered that would allow certain names to be used only for cheeses made in their place of origin.

Although U.S. manufacturers would be allowed to make the popular cheese we put on our pizzas, only factories in Parma, Italy, could label it “Parmesan.” Who knows? If the EU gets its way, we might be forced to call the American version, “Green Can Pizza Cheese” although I wouldn’t put it past them to contest the word “pizza,” as well.

Some other names on the forbidden list include Asiago (a little town in the Italian Alps); Gongonzola (a town in the province of Milan); Neufchatel (originally made in the French region of Normandy); Romano (originally made in the area which includes Rome); and Muenster (originally made in an abbey in the mountains of Alsace). It is interesting that the cheese made in France is spelled “Munster” while the American version is “Muenster.” The two are also quite distinct in taste which makes me wonder how many lawyers will be needed to settle this food fight.

Apparently, the name “feta” has already resulted in some legal fisticuffs. Even though there is no town or specific area called “Feta” in Greece, the EU argues the name is so closely associated with the country it should be considered a Greek product.

They make this argument for Greek yogurt as well. Canada and Central America have already agreed to make changes in food labels and now refer to cheeses they make as “feta-like” or “feta-style.”

Should we here in the U.S. fight back? Declare a trade war and restrict the names of our cheeses to our shores? What are our options?

Well, we do lay claim to “American” cheese. Unfortunately, because of its ingredients American cheese doesn’t meet our own government’s naming requirements and so must be referred to as “processed cheese,” “cheese product” or “cheese food.” American cheese is not so much true cheese as a sort of an amalgam, a melting pot — much like we think of America itself. The U.S. also produces Velveeta but I’m not sure it would be much of a weapon in any trade war with Europe.

In fact, there are some cheeses which were created in the United States. We have Colby cheese (originally made in a small village, Colby, Wis.), and we have Monterey Jack (made in Monterey, Calif., and marketed by businessman David Jack).

We also have an original blue-veined cheese, Maytag Blue. It was first made in Newton, Iowa, but there is a reason it isn’t called “Newton” cheese. Turns out, the son of the founder of the Maytag company raised prize-winning Holsteins (named for an area in Germany).

Perhaps because the Maytag family already had a good thing going with the washing machine business they figured the cheese would get an extra bounce from the name.

Maytag blue is made by a distinctly different technique than European bleu cheese. Besides, our American blue cheese has an E at the end rather than in the middle like the European version, so bring on the lawyers.

In an Associated Press interview, the president (The Big Cheese?) of Wisconsin-based BelGioioso Cheese argues: “We have invested years making these cheeses. You can’t stop the spreading of culture, especially in the global economy.”

As I see it, the European Union is behaving rather childishly about this whole cheese name thing. The EU is acting like a big baby Swiss, if you ask me.

Norman Knight, a retired Clark-Pleasant Middle School teacher, writes this weekly column for the Daily Journal. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net.

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