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Court rules Gruyère 'too generic' and U.S. companies can make the cheese

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Cheese-makers in Switzerland and France claim that Gruyere cheese can only be made in the Gruyere region of Switzerland and France. American cheese-makers beg to differ, and now a federal judge has weighed in. We have this cheesy story from Sally Herships and Adrian Ma of NPR's daily economics podcast The Indicator From Planet Money.

SALLY HERSHIPS, BYLINE: Imagine that you're standing in a grocery store somewhere in the world. A lot of food that ends up on store shelves and how it's priced is the result of trade deals between different countries. But there's this one specific ask that countries also try to insert into these deals. They're called geographical indications. Marc Busch teaches international trade policy and law at Georgetown.

MARC BUSCH: A geographical indication means that the quality is derived from the region, the reputation of the product is from a place - Washington state apples, Idaho potatoes.

ADRIAN MA, BYLINE: And Champagne - you know, the idea is to make Champagne, the grapes have to be grown in the Champagne region of northeast France. And countries often ask for these kinds of geographical indicators as intellectual property when they sign trade deals.

BUSCH: But we don't have a trade deal with the European Union.

HERSHIPS: In 2019, negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership were formally closed. Part of the roadblock was these protected foods. If you're an American politician, imagine trying to tell Kraft Foods or some giant company that it can no longer produce one of its products, like parmesan cheese because Parmigiano Reggiano is a protected food from Italy.

BUSCH: These geographical indications are largely found in the European Union. And it's kind of a new-world-versus-old-world fight, where the old world claims them and the new world challenges them, and that's what goes on.

HERSHIPS: Which is exactly what happened with Gruyere. Swiss and French cheese-makers filed an application with the United States Patent and Trademark Office to register the term Gruyere and protect it. American cheese-makers filed against it. And the American judge sided with the American cheese industry and said anyone can make Gruyere. According to this judge, Gruyere has become generic. Score - American cheese-makers 1, French and Swiss cheese-makers, fromagers, 0.

MA: In the meantime, the EU has most of these protected names - Burgundy, Chianti, Cognac. And they are super valuable. The global market for cheese is worth $72 billion a year. And we haven't even gotten to wine, olive oil.

BUSCH: So there's the fight, and the fight is deep, and the fight is global. And trade agreements, ironically, are the means by which these geographical indications are dispersed but, ultimately, may be the Achilles heel of them because with enough trade from enough countries, the decision, like here in the United States on Gruyere, may come down to, well, they're generic because consumers are used to getting this product from anywhere.

HERSHIPS: But Marc says the case is being appealed.

MA: Seems like this is going to continue to be a wedge issue in trade policy.

Adrian Ma.

HERSHIPS: Sally Herships, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DJANGO REINHARDT'S "MINOR SWING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.