Like his father and grandfather before him, Stefano Cavazzini makes Parmesan cheese the same way Benedictine monks did 700 years ago. His cows graze outside the Italian city of Parma, eating a strictly controlled natural diet. To their milk is added nothing but rennet, to curdle it, and salt. Once molded by hand into huge 38-kg wheels, the cheese is left to mature for at least a year. "Parmesan" is also the name the giant U.S. food company Kraft gives to the 60 million pounds of grated cheese it sells in green cans each year, mainly in America. It won't say how its Parmesan is made, but it doesn't pretend the industrial product has anything to do with Parma or its time-honored, costly traditions.
These two unequal parties are now about to face off in the food fight of the year. If the European Union gets its way, Kraft and every other food manufacturer in the world will no longer be allowed to use the name Parmesan. Only Cavazzini and his fellow makers of Parmigiano-Reggiano, as it's called in Italian, will be able to do that. The same goes for producers of Gorgonzola, Roquefort, Fontina, Parma ham, Cognac, Chianti, Liebfraumilch and champagne, among others. These products are on a list of 41 foodstuffs and wines for which the E.U. is seeking special global protection at the world trade negotiations that begin next week in Cancún, Mexico. E.U. negotiators will argue that the list consists of distinct products made in a traditional, controlled way in a specific geographic region and inadequately protected by trademark laws. And there are signs that the E.U. may tie future trade liberalization to international acceptance of the principle of geographical indications, as these traditional products with local names are known. It's also seeking agreement to establish an international registry of all such products. Franz Fischler, the E.U.'s agricultural commissioner, has said there can be no deal on agriculture at Cancún the big enchilada of these talks if it doesn't include the recognition of the principle. "This is not about protectionism. It's about fairness," Fischler said last week, unveiling the finalized list.
It's a meaty, divisive issue. The U.S., Australia and New Zealand all big food producers and exporters are adamantly opposed to the idea. They say that Parmesan and the other names on the list are either generic and should be available to all, or are sufficiently specific to be covered by existing trademark legislation. What the Europeans are demanding, they say, is simply protectionism. "One of my colleagues said European countries spent 500 years colonizing us and then we finally get free and now they want to have us pay for the names," Robert B. Zoellick, the U.S. trade representative, said recently.
But the E.U. isn't as isolated as Zoellick and company suggest. Some developing nations are sympathetic to geographical indications, with an eye toward protecting their key exports, including Indian Darjeeling tea and Argan oil from Morocco. And even in the U.S., there's some support: the Napa Valley Vintners Association, for example, is fighting a court battle in California with other U.S. wine makers over who can use the word "Napa" on their labels.
Not surprisingly, all sides in this battle invoke the consumer. "Nobody picks up Parmesan cheese in a green can and says, 'Ah! A fine Italian product,'" says Sarah F. Thorn of the Grocery Manufacturers of America, who contends that even the loss of one name such as Parmesan "could represent hundreds of millions of dollars" to the trade group's members. Michael Pellegrino, a vice president in Kraft's cheese division, told a congressional committee in July that being forced to change the name of products such as Parmesan would "likely require millions of dollars in packaging costs and an extensive, multimillion-dollar marketing campaign just to preserve, rather than grow, our existing level of sales." Thorn and other opponents also argue that a system of geographical indications which governments would be expected to monitor and enforce would create confusion and might threaten existing intellectual property laws.
But traditional producers disagree, saying that big players make money off the artisanal makers' reputations. "The multinationals want to keep it all as anonymous as possible," gripes Cavazzini, the cheesemaker in Parma. Parma ham, for instance, commands a premium of up to 50% over other hams in European stores, in part because the pigs are fattened until they are at least nine months old, and the ham contains no artificial coloring or preservatives. David Biltchik, U.S. representative for the official Parma Ham Consortium, says passing other hams off as Parma ham amounts to "forgery. I think these products are stealing from producers and consumers."