In Switzerland, Gruyère is a cheese with a strict recipe originally produced in a region (with a town) of the same name in the Swiss canton of Fribourg. On 7 January 2022, a judge at the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia affirmed a ruling by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) that Gruyere is a generic word that cannot be exclusively reserved for Switzerland’s distinctive Gruyere cheese.
The name Gruière (later Gruyère) was first applied to cheese in 1655, according to a producers’ association. In Switzerland, Gruyère cheese falls under the protected label Gruyère AOP (appellation d’origine protégée). Producers of Gruyère AOP, which can now be found in the cantons of Vaud, Neuchâtel, Jura and Bern must follow a precise recipe that starts with raw milk from cows fed on at least 70% roughage, such as grass and hay. The cheese must be a certain size and be aged for between 5 and 18 months.
There was once friction between France and Switzerland over the use of the Gruyère cheese label. Cheese makers in the Savoie and Franche-Comté regions of France produce a different cheese which they label Gruyère. The friction and confusion, which was eventually resolved in Brussels in 2013, resulted in a rule that binds French Gruyère makers to a recipe that produces a distinctive cheese with holes, reported RTS. French Gruyère is sold under the protected label Gruyère IGP (Indication géographique protégée).
Discerning European cheese shoppers now probably know that Gruyère IGP and Gruyère AOP are different cheeses with different recipes made in different places. In Europe, at least, the Gruyère cheese choice challenge ends there.
However, US Gruyère cheese shopping could get more challenging for discerning US consumers. They could be faced with Switzerland’s Gruyère AOP, France’s Gruyère IGP and a potentially endless array of different kinds of cheese of unknown flavours all bearing the name Gruyere. Some cheese connoisseurs who have bought “Parmesan” in nations such as the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand might have already experienced post purchase dissonance. Buying feta cheese outside Europe can be risky too. Outside Europe, feta, which is made from sheep and goats’ milk, is often a different product made entirely from cows’ milk.
The US Dairy Export Council, welcomed the recent court decision, which was described as a landmark victory for American dairy farmers and cheese producers. It said that Europe continues its aggressive and predatory efforts to confiscate names that entered the public domain decades ago. It also said that the Swiss association has already registered a logo certification mark with the USPTO for ‘Le Gruyère Switzerland AOC’ to help it uniquely brand Swiss gruyere.
Switzerland’s Gruyère makers are unhappy with the US court ruling and are planning to appeal the decision. Switzerland’s Federal Office for Agriculture (FOAG) expressed its disappointment at the US decision. In a statement it said that using the term Gruyère to describe cheese made in the US threatens the reputation of the original product and its image on the international market and can only damage the sector.
US exports are a large part of Swiss Gruyère cheese market and reached a record 4,000 tonnes (12.5%) out of total production of 32,000 tons in 2021, reported RTS.