The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (“4th Circuit”) recently decided InterProfession Du Gruyere vs. U.S. Dairy Export Council, which considered whether a geographic indication was essential to the use of the label “gruyère.” The 4th Circuit decided that it was not, finding that using that term on labels in the United States does not depend on where the cheese was produced (often referred to as a geographical indication), but merely on whether it meets Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) standard of identity.
FDA is responsible for the labeling of dairy products, among other things. It partially regulates labels by creating “standards of identity,” outlining how specific words may be used. FDA has created a standard of identity for gruyère cheese, defining it by the process needed to create the cheese, not by the location where the cheese is made.
In Europe, however, the label can only be used on cheese produced in the Alps region, near the Swiss/French border. As a result, a group of Swiss and French cheese producers brought the lawsuit at issue today. Ultimately, the court decided that FDA- and ultimately American consumers- saw gruyère as a type of cheese (similar to a label of “mozzarella” or “cheddar”) rather than one produced in a specific place.
Geographical indications are used worldwide, helping protect producers’ market share in specific regions. Whether you’re interested in “Idaho Potatoes” or “Parmigiano-Reggiano,” a part of the label’s meaning includes an indication of the area where the product originated. This case illustrates a trend that international food and beverage manufacturers are becoming more proactive in protecting names with a regional geographical significance. This is an important international trade issue because we expect similar litigation from other affected producers. On a larger scale, the European Union focuses on including geographical indicators as a critical part of trade deals and we expect this trend to continue. To learn more about geographical indications and international trade, click here for a National Agricultural Law Center webinar.