Food names

A continuing story. The current chapter: a WSJ piece on the 24th, “What’s More American Than Parmesan Cheese?: Plenty, according to the European Union. And its complaints could scuttle a trans-Atlantic trade deal” by Brian M. Carney:

More than half the members of the U.S. Senate rose in defense of American dairy last week, in what could be a sign of how hard it will be to forge a comprehensive trans-Atlantic trade deal.

The trouble comes from the European Union’s rules concerning “protected designations of origin” (PDO) and “protected geographical indications (PGI).” EU law allows producers of many foods —from Parmesan cheese to prosciutto — to apply for legal protection for the names of their products.

Here’s the problem:

The European Commission … decides whether a name has become generic or not and then how much protection a product deserves. So cheddar gets no protection but feta does. And to be prosciutto di Parma, your ham must not only be produced near that Italian city, but it must meet a host of requirements on how long it has been aged, what the pigs have been fed, and more.

And a solution:

The oft-stated reason for this is “market failure.” Consumers, the argument goes, can’t be trusted to distinguish between “real” Parma ham and cut-rate knockoffs. But apart from the obvious condescension in this view, trademark law has already solved this non-problem.

Suppose a group of Parmesan cheese producers in Parma wanted to advertise that they all adhere to certain standards in the production of their cheese. They could create a logo, trademark it and require cheesemakers who want to use the logo to get certified. Cheese without the logo might be better or worse, sell at a discount or a premium—it would depend on whether consumers valued the things that made your trademarked cheese special.

… If the European Union had chosen to rely on traditional trademark law in protecting these products, rather than creating a whole new bureaucracy to adjudicate these matters, this problem would have never arisen. The producers in Parma could have their logo, and the Parmesan makers in Wisconsin could have theirs. Consumers would be free to choose whether they valued what made Parmesan from Parma unique.

Instead, the European Commission faces a steady stream of protectionist petitions. A story in this newspaper last week noted that the Melton Mowbray pork pie is protected. While plain-old “cheddar” wasn’t deemed worthy, and Stilton is (but can’t be made in Stilton, England, weirdly), the Commission earlier this month granted “Orkney Scottish Island Cheddar” protected geographical indication status. And “West Country Farmhouse Cheddar” has been deemed a protected designation of origin.

I suspect that American markets and restaurants will continue to offer parmesan cheese under that name (as they do now), despite the threat of EU lawsuits. I’m not sure what British markets and restaurants (actually within the EU) do, and I have no idea what an acceptable replacement for parmesan (etc.) would be. But this is what Wikipedia says:

Parmigiano-Reggiano … , called Parmesan in English after the French name for it, is a hard, granular cheese, cooked but not pressed, named after the producing areas near Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, and Bologna (all in Emilia-Romagna), and Mantova (in Lombardia), Italy. Under Italian law, only cheese produced in these provinces may be labelled “Parmigiano-Reggiano”, and European law classifies the name, as well as the translation “Parmesan”, as a protected designation of origin.

Parmigiano is the Italian adjective for Parma. Reggiano is the Italian adjective for Reggio Emilia. In the US the name Parmesan is used for cheeses which imitate Parmigiano-Reggiano, along with phrases such as “Italian hard cheese”. [Italian hard cheese is unlikely to catch on, though it has some entertainment value.]

… Outside Europe, commercially produced imitation cheeses may be legally sold under the generic name Parmesan. When sold in Europe, such cheeses are obliged to be sold under other names, such as Kraft’s “pamesello italiano”.

I suppose I’ve seen pamesello italiano, but I don’t recall it.






One Response to “Food names”

  1. John Says:

    “Grana,” with some distinctive adjective might do the trick.

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