Mar 18, 2014
04:51 PM
Connecticut Today

The Great Cheese Labeling War; Connecticut Farmers on the Front Lines

 
The Great Cheese Labeling War; Connecticut Farmers on the Front Lines

The Pleasant Cow Cheese by Sankow's Beaver Brook Farm.

The U.S. and the European Union (EU) are poised for battle—a cheese battle.

As part of a new fair trade agreement to be enacted in 2015, the EU wants to ban the use of European names like Asiago, Parmesan, feta and muenster for cheeses made in the States. They say the names are geographical indicators, like Burgundy and Bordeaux are for wine, but American dairy farmers and cheese producers say no way; the names are so universal at this point that banning their use would only serve to confuse customers and hurt the industry.

Instead, American cheesemakers would be forced to use words like, “Parmesan-like” or “feta style” when describing their products. That’s now the case in Canada, which struck an agreement with the EU last year. Part of that agreement was the sacrificing of the widely-acknowledged and recognizable names.

Senator Chris Murphy, who serves at the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on European Affairs, is making his stance on the issue known. (Murphy, right, with Suzanne Sankow of Sankow's Beaver Brook Farm.)

“Cheeses made here in Connecticut are just as good as those made in Europe. We would argue they’re even better,” he said at Sankow’s Beaver Brook Farm in Lyme Tuesday afternoon (March 18).

He stopped by the farm for the Connecticut Cheese Challenge, an opportunity for people to try some of Sankow’s feta alongside brands you could find in Stop & Shop. Their Fresh Cow Cheese, Pleasant Son and Nehantic Abbey were also available for tasting.

More important, though, was Murphy’s public show of support for farmers like the Sankows, who have been producing dairy products on the farm since 1913.

They’re in the company of many Connecticut farms that currently make cheese with recognizable European names.

Arethusa Farm Dairy in Litchfield  makes award-winning camembert, and Calabro Cheese Corporation in East Haven  makes ricotta and Romano, among others. They are two other farms that would be impacted.

And while Connecticut doesn’t have an official cheese trail, some people have forged their own, like this one.

Murphy says he’s largely in support of the trade agreement, just not the cheese-labeling part, and he is advocating on behalf of cheese producers because this change could have a “real economic impact.”

According to the Murphy, 43 percent of all milk produced in the state makes its way into cheeses. “We’re talking about a serious chunk of the Connecticut agricultural economy,” he said.

If Connecticut cheesemakers are forced to use terms like “muenster-like,” it will give the perception that our cheeses are inferior to their European brothers."

In fact, that’s exactly the EU’s argument—that American cheeses are a shadow of the originals and shouldn’t bear the names.

Murphy and Connecticut farmers like Suzanne Sankow say that isn’t true.

“People are going to assume two things,” Murphy said of the new names being suggested. "They’re going to assume that, one, the cheese is different and two, that it’s worse.”

If people think that they will stop buying Connecticut-made cheeses, causing a depression in the market, which in turn could cause a depression the milk market, Murphy said. The ramifications could be significant.

Sankow is adamant that the changes would negatively impact her business, which sells its products at New Haven farmers market.

She said many people come up and ask for the cheeses by name, like feta. “People want a name cheese,” she said. “They buy the cheese they know.”

If she is forced to change the name of her feta to, say, “fresh white cheese,” like feta makers in Bulgaria have been forced to do, she believes people wouldn’t purchase it at all because they wouldn’t understand what they were getting.

“Trying to sell feta under a different name, we would struggle,” she said.

Murphy understands the EU’s argument—it’s the same argument used in the wine industry—but when it comes to cheese he believes there’s “no way to unwind the product from the name.” What’s done is done.

The EU disagrees and doesn't appear ready to back down, so this cheese-labeling war seems to be far from over. 

 Contact me by email at khartman@connecticutmag.com and follow me on Twitter, and connect with Connecticut Magazine on Twitter, onFacebook and on Google +

The Great Cheese Labeling War; Connecticut Farmers on the Front Lines

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