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Consumer Reports

Wisconsin, Europe butt cheeseheads over names | (KRT) They're cheesed off in Wisconsin over a European scheme to ban foreigners from using popular cheese names like feta, Parmesan and Gorgonzola.

Europeans claim that certain products are part of their heritage, and this week they will ask world trade officials for exclusive rights to 13 cheese names. But Wisconsin, America's No. 1 cheese-making state, has come out swinging against the idea.

"We see it as a serious threat to our ability to market cheeses that we've been making for decades," said John Umhoefer with the Wisconsin Cheesemakers Association. "People will still ask for feta cheese, but if you have to call it 'Mediterranean white cheese,' you're going to confuse the consumer."

And it's not just cheese. Europeans want to require that any wine called "bordeaux" come from the Bordeaux region of France, or it must be called something else. Same with Chianti, Champagne, Beaujolais and Parma ham.

Europeans have argued to the WTO that they are tired of foreign products "free riding on the reputation" of European originals. When world trade ministers meet next week in Cancun, Mexico, Europeans will ask for exclusive rights to 41 such names. If Europe is forced to scale back its generous farm subsidies, the rights could become a bargaining chip.

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But Wisconsin cheese-lovers are uniting against the threat, seeing protectionism at work, not homeland pride. U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., mocked the European claim in a letter he sent Thursday to the U.S. trade representative.

"Residents of a certain German city have no claim to the word 'hamburger,' for example, any more than those who live in the Belgian capital could sue over use of the term 'brussel sprout,'" Feingold said. "The success of immigrant cheesemakers in the U.S. has turned names like 'feta' and 'Swiss' into generic names that indicate product characteristics rather than geographic origin."

Cheesemaking is a $7 billion-a-year business in Wisconsin, so the dispute could have significant consequences. Plus, U.S. cheesemakers think they deserve credit for popularizing European cheeses in America, not bad-mouthing as pirates and freeloaders.

"If anything, our cheese plants have built the United States feta market and Parmesan market," Umhoefer said. "Imports have only been a small percentage."

In 2001, Wisconsin alone produced seven times as much hard cheese as Italy exported to the United States. So U.S. cheesemakers think something stinks about all this, and it ain't the Limburger.

"They're trying to reach into our nation and affect what we do," Umhoefer said. "It's not as if we're going to Italy with Parmesan and rubbing their noses in it."

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© 2003, Saint Paul Pioneer Press Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services