Gruyère: The Latest Round in the Food Culture Wars

Food is Culture! This proclamation is a both a popular idea and a serious anthropological approach to food, cuisine, and agricultural production. Food historians take the cultural dimensions of food production and consumption seriously as revealing important social dynamics. Food is Culture has also become a slogan and is even being used as the title of a project by the Slow Food organization.

If food is culture, it is also a key battleground in the Culture Wars. Local and regional food producers have long attempted to distinguish their food products and market them on broader markets. These food producers often seek to establish rules on production to uphold standards and protect their techniques.

Many European food producers have been engaging in such trade regulation for centuries, although their “traditions” have often changed over time more than modern food producers would like to admit. The makers of Parmgiano Regiano, Roquefort, Camembert, and other cheeses have long tried to protect their products through regulations designating their specific geographic regions as the areas or approved production (essentially, making their products’ names into trademarks). Producers of Prosciutto di Parma, Speck Alto Adige, and Jamón Iberico have used similar geographic regulations on production. Lardo di Colonnata famously had to fight for European Union approval of its method of curing lard in marble tubs in order to maintain its status.

Yet, many of these products relying on geographic regions of production are protected by national or European Union regulations, not by international law, leading to food producers outside of Europe using their names on their products. The globalization of food cultures and tastes has made the protection of food production ever more complicated. The marketing of “European” food products made in Wisconsin, Maine, or California has fueled international competition and Food Culture Wars. European wine producers have also attempted to control the name of regional wines—such as Champagne, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Bordeaux—with varying success.

The latest round in the Food Culture Wars is being fought in courts in the United States over Gruyère cheese, one of the most famous varieties of cheese in the world.

Swiss regulations insist that Gruyère cheese “must be made in the region around Gruyères, Switzerland, which has produced the cheese since the 12th century,” according to The New York Times.

“In the United States, however, gruyère can be made anywhere, according to a federal court ruling that was made public last week. It was the latest development in a long-running legal tangle between American cheese producers and producers in Switzerland and France over what makes gruyère gruyère.”

The New York Times reports on a court case in the United States concerning the use of the term “gruyère” by cheese producers in the U.S. “In the ruling last month in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Judge T.S. Ellis III wrote, ‘Although the term gruyère may once have been understood to indicate an area of cheese production, the factual record makes it abundantly clear that the term gruyère has now, over time, become generic to cheese purchasers in the United States.’ Under U.S. law, trademarks cannot be given to generic terms.”

This decision clearly undermines the manufacture and sale of authentic cheeses from Gruyères, but also threatens local and regional food production in other areas of Europe and the world. Many local food products in Europe developed their specific identities in the early modern period (1500-1800), but often without clear legal designations or protections for their “traditional” methods of food production. Artisanal production and guild regulations provided certain types of control, but these were often only local in nature and later supplanted by municipal regulations and national laws. There is a long and complex history of regulations on food production, trade, and consumption.

Which local aspects of food production (water, soil, ingredients, implements, and techniques) can be legally protected? How can “traditional” food production be defined? These are highly contested issues and they are increasingly being fought out in courts of law in different nations.

As The New York Times points out, “in Europe, countries are staunchly protective over their culinary heritage. The European Union says it aims to protect the names of specific products to promote the unique characteristics that are linked to their geographical origin.”

The Culture Wars will undoubtedly continue and food is increasingly central to battles over who controls the production and consumption of food as culture.

The New York Times reports on “Is Gruyère Still Gruyère if It Doesn’t Come From Gruyères?”

Slow Food has a website for its project on Food is Culture.

Allen J. Grieco is one of the leading scholars of food history in Renaissance Italy and the early modern world. Grieco’s website lists numerous publications on Renaissance food history.

Author’s disclosure: I admit to having a strong bias on this issue, since Gruyère is definitely one of my favorite cheeses.

This entry was posted in Cultural History, Culture, Early Modern Europe, Early Modern World, Environmental History, European Studies, European Union, Food and Cuisine History, Francophonie, French History, Globalization, History in the Media, Italian History, Material Culture, Renaissance Art and History, United States History and Society, World History. Bookmark the permalink.

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