Nicholas Goldberg: What cheese? The international politics of Gruyere is pondered by the Swiss

Nicholas Goldberg: What cheese? The international politics of Gruyere is pondered by the Swiss

Switzerland is small and not well-known for many things. You can find it in its cheese, banks, mountains, neutrality, watches, pocketknives, and chocolate.

Beware! This stuff is taken seriously by the Swiss.

This is what caused two crises recently, one regarding the labeling and packaging of Toblerone chocolates. You might have missed them because you blink.

Let’s begin with the gruyere.

Nicholas Goldberg's sketch-style portrait illustration

Opinion Columnist

Nicholas Goldberg

Nicholas Goldberg was editor for the editorial page for 11 years. He is also a former editor of Sunday Opinion and Op-Ed pages.

Gruyere has been around for nearly 1,000 years. This is according to the Oxford Companion to Cheese. It is a mild and creamy hard cheese made from unpasteurized milk that comes from cows who live in idyllic mountain pastures. The traditional methods used to make it are passed on through generations.

It’s also been done elsewhere in recent decades. It’s not something that the Swiss like, and it isn’t what their French neighbors are happy about.

The issue at the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals was earlier this month whether American cheesemakers in Wisconsin, Idaho, and elsewhere have the right to produce and label cheese using the name gruyere. Even though they have been making it for many decades, the process is not strictly followed and the cheese that they sell isn’t La Gruyere.

French and Swiss cheesemakers said that they were not. Bien sur que non!

For their part, the Americans said that Europeans need to relax and forget about themselves. Gruyere’s name is just as generic as bologna and frankfurters.

Bologna is not the place to expect bologna.

It’s not true, however that this dispute isn’t as significant as the conflict in Ukraine and the looming climate crisis.

It caught my eye. A battle between bitter cheesemakers across the ocean! There’s quite a lot at stake. According to court appeals, seven million pounds of Swiss gruyere was imported in 2020. Nearly 40,000 pounds French gruyere sold in the U.S. during 2016. The U.S. produces millions more pounds of so called gruyere.

The American cheese producers won in the end. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office was first convinced, followed by a federal court and then the 4th Circuit appels court. They also argued that “gruyere”, the generic name for the cheese, has been made obsolete. This law states that U.S. customers who ask for gruyere in a shop will understand that it is a generic name. Type Cheese — Not a cheese from a specific region.

However, I will venture to say that I believe this is the wrong approach.

It’s all about a principle. They are the ones who have to eat this cheese. They have a tradition.

The majority of Americans know that Champagne is from France’s Champagne region, but that it can be made from other parts of the world and should therefore be labeled “sparkling” wine.

Since 1953, Roquefort cheese was given a U.S. protective label. A certification mark is also given to Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, just like what the French and Swiss wanted for gruyere. These designations make it difficult for other people to adopt the name.

What is Gruyere? Chopbed liver? It deserves protection, too.

It is absurd to allow the same name to be used by every cheese maker, simply because it has become commonplace. Americans aren’t limited to gruyere only from Europe. They’ve seen it on shelves in their supermarkets for years, as well as gruyere made elsewhere. False branding is now the reason for the continuing charade.

1000 years should, it seems to me, be counted for some reason. Names matter, traditions matter and standards matter. No one can stop U.S. cheesemakers from making a similar cheese. They shouldn’t make it look like gruyere.

Okay, enough with the cheese. We’ll move onto another issue about Switzerland’s cultural heritage.

The issue this time is about chocolate. Particularly, Toblerone.

Toblerone was created by Theodor Tobler, a Swiss confectioner. Chocolates from this country are identified so well that the package contains a picture of their national flag as well as the Matterhorn, a landmark Swiss mountain. Even the chocolates look like the Matterhorn.

The chocolate manufacturer has now decided to outsource some of its chocolate production. The chocolate maker is moving it to Bratislava in Slovakia’s capital, because there are lower wages and the cost of making chocolate is likely cheaper.

What made this decision? Mondelez International is the current owner of Toblerone. This conglomerate, based in Illinois, also holds Oreos and Trident gums as well as Tang, Philadelphia Cream Cheese, Tang, Tang, Tang, Tang, and Tang. Is that actually made in Philadelphia?

Mondelez is disappointed that the laws of Switzerland regarding “Swissnessness” prohibit national symbols from being used for promotion of chocolate. This applies only to products whose milk contains 100% and the rest of their materials are sourced in Switzerland.

Last week, the company stated that it would remove the Matterhorn image and national flag from its chocolate boxes in compliance with Swiss law.

Although this issue isn’t as challenging as the fate of Gruyere, I have to admit that I was shocked when I learned my favorite Swiss chocolate was being produced in Slovakia by an American conglomerate.

Globalization has many benefits, there is no doubt. However, conglomeration, multilateralism, and commercialism have some drawbacks.

The Americans first took gruyere. Toblerone is now in Bratislava. For the record, Philadelphia Cream Cheese wasn’t from Philadelphia.


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