The U.S. dairy sector is celebrating a judicial victory in the ongoing battle over the use of common cheese names after a federal judge ruled French and Swiss producers don't have an exclusive right to the name Gruyere.

Judge T.S. Ellis III of the Eastern District of Virginia on Thursday upheld an August decision by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board that Gruyere is a generic name that can be used by U.S. cheese makers.

“The record evidence of common usage and industry practice points clearly to the conclusion that while some individuals understand gruyere to have an association with Switzerland (and, to a lesser degree, France), the term gruyere has come to have a well-accepted generic meaning through the process of genericide and is no longer universally understood to indicate cheese produced in the Gruyère region,” the judge wrote.

The Swiss Interprofession du Gruyère and the French Syndicat Interprofessional du Gruyère first applied to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for exclusive rights to use the name gruyere for their cheeses in the U.S. in 2015.

“Not only is this a landmark victory for American dairy farmers and cheese producers who offer gruyere, this win sets a vital precedent in the much larger, ongoing battle over food names in the United States,” said Jaime Castaneda, who is executive director for the Consortium for Common Food Names as well as executive vice president of the U.S. Dairy Export Council.

“The European Union has tried for years to monopolize common names such as gruyere, parmesan, bologna or chateau. This verdict validates that we’re on the right path in our fight on behalf of American food and wine producers to preserve their ability to use long-established generic names.” 

But the court battle resolved this week is just one part of the efforts by U.S. dairy groups to counter the international effort by the European Union to convince foreign governments — often as provisions in trade agreements — to restrict the usage of cheese names like Asiago, feta and Parmesan.

The EU, for example, would like to restrict the usage of the name Asiago to cheeses made on the Asiago plateau in the Veneto region of Italy.

Meanwhile, the EU early last year launched the public feedback stage of its plans to strengthen what it calls geographical indications, or GIs, in its Farm to Fork plan to overhaul European agricultural policy.

“This is a huge victory for common sense and for hard-working manufacturers and dairy farmers,” USDEC President and CEO Krysta Harden said about the Virginia judge's ruling. “When a word is used by multiple companies in multiple stores and restaurants every day for years, as gruyere has been, that word is generic, and no one owns the exclusive right to use it.”

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