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EU seeks to halt use of famed cheese names for US foods

Kraft would have to stop using the label Parmesan on its pasta topping if Europe gets its way in ongoing trade talks.

J. David Ake/Associated Press

Kraft would have to stop using the label Parmesan on its pasta topping if Europe gets its way in ongoing trade talks.

WASHINGTON — Would Parmesan by any other name be as tasty atop your pasta? A ripening trade battle might put that to the test.

As part of trade talks, the European Union wants to ban the use of such European names as Parmesan, feta, and Gorgonzola on cheese made in the United States.

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The argument is that the American-made cheeses are shadows of the original European varieties and cut into the sales and identity of the European cheeses. The Europeans say Parmesan should come only from Parma, Italy, not from those familiar green cylinders US companies sell. Feta should be only from Greece, even though feta isn’t a place. The European Union argues it ‘‘is so closely connected to Greece as to be identified as an inherently Greek product.’’

So, a little ‘‘hard-grated cheese’’ for your pasta? It doesn’t have quite the same ring as Parmesan.

US dairy producers, cheesemakers, and other food companies are fighting the idea, which they say would hurt the $4 billion domestic cheese industry and confuse consumers.

‘‘It’s really stunning that the Europeans are trying to claw back products made popular in other countries,’’ says Jim Mulhern, president of the National Milk Producers Federation, which represents dairy farmers.

The European Union would not say exactly what it is proposing or whether it will be discussed this week at a new round of talks on an EU-US free trade agreement.

European Commission spokesman Roger Waite would say only that the question ‘‘is an important issue for the EU.’’

That’s clear from recent agreements with Canada and Central America, where certain cheese names were restricted unless the cheese came from Europe. Under the Canadian agreement, for example, new feta products manufactured in Canada can only be marketed as feta-like or feta-style, and they can’t use Greek letters or other symbols of Greece.

The European Union is expected to make similar attempts to restrict marketing of US-made cheeses, possibly including Parmesan, Asiago, Gorgonzola, feta, fontina, Muenster, Neufchatel, and Romano.

And it may not be just cheese. Other products could include bologna, Black Forest ham, and Valencia oranges.

The trade negotiations are important for the EU because Europe is trying to protect its share of agricultural exports and pull itself out of recession. The ability to exclusively sell some of the continent’s most famous and traditional products would prevent others from cutting into those markets.

A bipartisan group of 55 senators wrote to US Trade Representative Michael Froman and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack this week, asking them not to agree to any such EU proposals.

Companies that mass-produce cheese are also fighting. Kraft Foods Group says cheese names are considered generic in the United States. ‘‘Such restrictions could not only be costly to food makers, but also potentially confusing for consumers,” spokesman Basil Maglaris says.

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