The phrase "American cheese" still conjures images of processed food in individually wrapped slices, but American-made cheeses have been gaining in popularity among gourmands. Now, just when American cheesemakers are on a hot streak, they may have to rename most of their products as the rights to cheese names are under debate during trade talks between the United States and the European Union.
The EU is on a mission to reclaim the names of cheeses that originated in Europe, such as Gouda, feta, ricotta, brie, cheddar and Parmesan - you know, basically every cheese.
The U.S. Dairy Export Council and the National Milk Producers Federation argue that the fight over cheese names is an important economic battle for the U.S., which last year became the largest single country cheese exporter in the world. Among their concerns is that consumers will find name changes confusing.
Consumers are already used to proprietary regional names in alcohol sales. Sparkling wine isn't Champagne unless it comes from the Champagne region of France, and only whisky made in Scotland can be called Scotch.
But what about foods that aren't directly named after a place, like feta? Canadians will now label their feta cheese "feta-style," as part of their trade agreement with the EU last year. (Not very creative but more appealing than, say, "fetal" or "fetish.")
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Would Sqirl's house ricotta be just as delicious if they called it creamed curds instead? Some California cheesemakers already choose not to use European cheese names and instead call their cheeses after local landmarks, such as Cowgirl Creamery's Mt. Tam and Bellwether Farm's Carmody.
Glenn Harrell, owner of Say Cheese in Silver Lake, notes that debate and hype are unavoidable whenever there's a change under discussion, but since Americans have grown as both makers and consumers of cheese, this change might not be bad. "Now that we understand it better and we're able to take it to another level," he said, "I think we should be proud of making our own cheese and calling it whatever we want."