The European Union wants American food manufacturers to rename domestically produced foods in a number of categories, including Parmesan, feta, and Gorgonzola cheese.
They want to do this so they can't be confused with the real McCoys, which have been ostensibly monopolized by European manufacturers. Whose cheeses, no doubt, are derived exclusively from black-and-white-spotted dairy cows, lovingly milked at dawn by tawny Continental milkmaids, the milk squirted directly into a wooden bucket resting on a bed of dew-speckled hay.
What little authority the European Union has to make American companies change the name of a product on American shelves remains to be seen. Roger Waite, an EU representative, signaled to the Associated Press that this is "an important issue for the EU," and our authorities think it's going to be on the agenda at an upcoming US-EU free-trade conference in Brussels.
Kraft sounds pretty mad about it. Their spokesman, Basil Maglaris, said, "Such restrictions could not only be costly to food makers but also potentially confusing for consumers if the labels of their favorite products using these generic names were required to change." But while they may balk, businesses only care that they'd have to pay to design and print new labels.
The controversy may sound like an example of that sort of smug, European cheese snobbery you have to combat when you travel abroad. Cue offensive French accent: "You know, what you Amereecans call cheese, we would not see fit to use as—qu'est-ce que c'est—industrial lubricant." I'm not saying it's not that, but there's also much more to this.
For expertise, I reached out to John Coupland, food-science professor at Penn State, who put the controversy in context for me. I first wanted to know how likely the EU's plan was to succeed. "I don't see it going anywhere," he said when I initially emailed him. Coupland is an expert on food ingredients and was knowledgeable about the trade politics of food.
I got him on the phone to learn more. "It's fairly alien. We're much more used to defining food by what it is," he said, referring to Europe's protected-food classifications. "You can make Swiss cheese, and I can make Swiss cheese, and as long as you meet certain standards, that's what it is." In Europe, he says, the thought process is completely different. "Food is associated with a place. It doesn't matter how good your champagne is—unless you brew it in a certain place, it's not champagne."
Here's a row of bottles. If you're an American, tell me what you're looking at:
If you said "champagne," you're way off. It's Martini & Rossi's notoriously crappy, hangover-inducing asti spumante, a college-party favorite. But if you walk into most American supermarkets asking for champagne, this is what they'll point you to. If you're like me and most Americans, you've probably never had authentic champagne, and you don't give a fuck.
As for authentic Parmesan, forget it. We don't even care whether we're eating "cheese" in the first place. Kraft singles omitted the controversial word from the main label a long time ago, and we, the eagle-eyed consumers of America, just kept faithfully shoveling it into our shopping carts.
Be honest—even if this is a stupid restriction brought about by Italian snobbery, do you really think the spider eggs and salt you shake onto your pizza deserve to be called "Parmesan," a word meaning "from Parma, Italy"?
Now, for the record, even at its worst, our Parmesan isn't spider eggs and salt. It's mostly Parmesan cheese as defined by the FDA, plus, according to Coupland, "microcrystalline cellulose, a powder added to prevent caking." He also explained why dietary fiber is in so much of our food:
"I think they want the stuff to be refrigerated, but I don't think most people refrigerate it. Even if you write 'Refrigerate this stuff' on the package, you're gonna be nervous that your customers aren't going to. You can't go in and enforce that. So in order to get the stuff to last, well, they have to put some cellulose in there, which stops the pieces of cheese sticking together."
There's also a little potassium sorbate in there. It's an additive, yes, but one found in nature. And that's it. A short list of ingredients, all things considered.
"I like Kraft cheese. I've got a can of the stuff at home," Coupland told me. "Industrial manufacturing is all about making something consistent. It's not like it's awful."
I'm being honest when I say that "It's not like it's awful" is exactly what I think when I eat 90 percent of the foods I eat. It's just flavor powder. If you're like me, you probably mispronounce it and say "parma-jann" anyway. So if the can suddenly says "Parmesan-flavored product," will you even notice, let alone hesitate to buy it?