LeBaron: Europe cheesed off over our curds

  • Marin French Cheese Company's old logo still welcomes guests to its store along Red Hill Road in Petaluma on Thursday, May 23, 2013. The company is making several upgrades, including a rebranding. (Conner Jay/The Press Democrat)

It may be OK to say "cheese!"

But, if the European Union has its way, it may not be OK to say "Parmesan." Or "Gruyere." Or even the lower-case "feta."

One of the least threatening news stories to come out of Europe in the past couple of weeks is the news that the EU wants to put the "problem" of Old World names for New World products on the agenda for its impending trade talks.

Think Champagne vs. sparkling wine.

The EU (which should have enough to do, what with the Ukrainian issue) is suggesting that the names of distinctive food products that originated in specific European regions — such as Parmesan from Parma, in Italy — are like trademarks, private property that doesn't travel well. Furthermore, it has been suggested abroad, anything produced by American cows is simply a poor imitation of the original.

Because these issues have a way of spreading (like Philly cream cheese?), the continental food police have mentioned possible takeaways of Neufchatel, Fontina, Gorgonzola, Muenster, even sandwich fare like provolone and bologna. The latter did, after all, originate in Bologna.

If all this seems like just more international trade baloney to you, remember what happened to Champagne. After a hue and cry two decades or more ago, sparkling wine not made from grapes grown in the Champagne region of France were discouraged from using the term Champagne. And sure enough, the American variety became just "sparkling wine," although Sonoma County's own Korbel squeaks by with "California Champagne" on its labels.

Now Europeans are having another food identity crisis. The proposal for discussion at the upcoming trade talks in Brussels has produced outcries. In Wisconsin, one Parmesan producer, interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, asked, acidly, "What am I supposed to call it? 'I Can't Believe It's Not Parmesan?'" And the Guardian already has given the issue its catch-name: Cheesegate.

Some 55 senators have signed a letter of protest to the Secretary of Agriculture, asking that the U.S. delegation not agree to anything of the kind. Kraft Foods, whose familiar green containers of Parmesan and Romano get sprinkled on everything from pasta and pizza to popcorn and frozen French fries, is taking the high road, issuing a neutral sort of statement expressing the worry that its customers "would be confused" by a name change.

Kraft's Velveeta and Cheez Whiz are, I'm sure, in absolutely no danger.

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