Column: Cheesed off: Let us keep our dairy-airs
Something in the world of dairy stinks, and it’s not because of the cows.
I’m not on the family farm now as much as I used to be, but I still try to keep up with some news from the dairy industry. Last week, I read about something that has me a bit, well, cheesed off.
Politics are messy, and global politics are worse. I’m not an expert in either, but, based on what I’ve read, the European Union wants the U.S. to agree to have a clause in a trade agreement that the two sides have been negotiating since 2013.
According to the European Union’s website, this agreement, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, will aim to remove many trade barriers and make it easier to buy and sell goods between the EU and U.S. It is being touted as a great way to drive growth, create jobs and boost economies on both sides.
Sounds good and straight forward, right? OK, but what is this clause that the EU is trying to include?
Two words: geographical indications.
A December 2013 Reuters report claimed that the EU is “determined” to write this system into any deal it might make with the U.S.
According to the European Commission (the EU’s executive government branch) website, geographical indications are used to identify a product that traditionally originates from a specific country or region where its reputation or other defining characteristics began.
This system is why “real” champagne only comes from a specific region within France and everything else has to call itself “sparkling wine.”
As part of the agreement, the U.S. would be expected to recognize other products with these special names.
Here is where I think things start to smell fishy (and yes, I realize this sounds like an elaborate conspiracy theory).
In 1984, milk quotas were established for EU member countries. Basically, they said, “Don’t produce any more than ‘X’ liters of milk this year, or you’ll have to pay a fine,” in order to control the price of milk.
In 2003, the EU decided that the quotas would end in 2015.
Farms in the EU are growing and ramping up milk production for when the quota vanishes, so they can be more profitable. Some countries have already begun to exceed their quota and pay the fine, because… why not?
More likely than not, the EU will be flooded by unprecedented milk production in 2015. What can they do with all of that milk?
How about make cheese.
Let’s say the trade agreement is approved. Cheeses that have been made in the U.S.A. for decades suddenly need to be renamed and rebranded – even though they’re the same as they’ve always been.
There isn’t a definitive list of cheeses that would be affected, but classics such as mozzarella, parmesan, cheddar, feta and havarti would probably be included.
While American cheese makers adjust to these changes, EU-made cheeses (with familiar names) would be easily imported and sold.
Imagine you are at the grocery store, planning to make your favorite cheese-centric dish for supper.
You look for pale, white Swiss or bright orange cheddar, but it’s not there. You see familiar packages and brands, but with strange names.
But… what is that there, in the corner? It’s imported and more expensive, but it’s your old friend, mozzarella. You buy it and wonder what on Earth happened to all of the ‘normal’ cheese, but shrug it off, along with other Americans.
Suddenly, there is a booming market for cheese made in the EU. Their conundrum of what to do with the extra milk has been solved. Meanwhile, U.S. dairy production and sales take a beating.
Does that sound overly dramatic – like I might be wearing a tinfoil hat? Maybe.
However, I know plenty of people who drink Coke and only Coke – never Pepsi. It has to be Coke. Sometimes, names and details can make all the difference with our food. Who wants “chocolate flavored morsels” in place of real chocolate chips?
The EU all but spells out their intentions on a FAQ page for the trade deal: “Europe has a clear interest in being able to sell more of the top quality foods it produces to the U.S. At the moment, some European food products … are subject to high U.S. tariffs…dairy products up to 139 percent. Removing these and other barriers will help boost EU exports to the U.S.”
I’m not saying the European Union is entirely out of line for wanting to respect tradition. However, I do think there is more to it. I also think it’s underhanded to push for such a one-sided scheme in an agreement where both sides are supposed to benefit.
I say, drop the name games and manipulation. Don’t push the cheese we’ve made off of shelves to make room for yours because it’s ‘special.’ If parmesan cheese made in Parma, Italy is superior to what is made and sold here, it will do just fine in a competitive market.