In Europe, Gruyère, the name of a cheese and a small picturesque Swiss town (Gruyères), is legally reserved for specific cheeses from parts of Switzerland and France made to strict recipes. However, in the US it is also applied loosely to a type of cheese that differs from the Swiss and French originals. European producers have tried to end the confusion by legally reserving the name for their product. But on 3 March 2023, a US court of appeal upheld a lower court ruling in favour of American cheesemakers’ looser use of the name.
The recent US appeals court decision is part of a legal battle that began in 2013 when an association of European producers of Gruyère cheese legally opposed the application of the name to US cheeses on the grounds that it was confusing to apply the same name to different cheeses.
However, US appeals court judges upheld the lower court ruling concluding that the Swiss and French plaintiffs “cannot overcome what the record makes clear: cheese consumers in the United States understand ‘GRUYERE’ to refer to a type of cheese, which renders the term generic”.
Acknowledging the defeat, the Swiss association defending the brand said that it was disappointed that Swiss Gruyère finds itself competing with totally different products with the same name. Switzerland’s federal department of agriculture echoed the disappointment, describing the recent US decision as one that could only damage the entire industry.
The Gruyère cheese naming saga has a long history. The name Gruière (later Gruyère) was first applied to cheese in 1655, according to a producers’ association. In Switzerland, Gruyère cheese now falls under the protected label Gruyère AOP (appellation d’origine protégée). Producers of Gruyère AOP, which is produced 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.
Confusion and legal conflict over the Gruyere brand began in Europe between France and Switzerland. Cheese makers in the Savoie and Franche-Comté regions of France produce a different cheese to the Swiss, which they also 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 and the Swiss to their hole-free recipe, reported RTS. Today, French Gruyère is sold under the protected label Gruyère IGP (Indication géographique protégée), while the distinct Swiss version is sold under the label Gruyère AOP (appellation d’origine protégée).
So Europe ended up with two Gruyère cheeses, a French one with holes (above) and a Swiss one with none (below).
The US by contrast has now ended up with an endless array of Gruyère cheeses made in different places to different recipes. However, for discerning US customers all is not lost. The AOP (Swiss) and IGP (French) designations will continue to distinguish European brands as will the accented “è” in the European branded cheeses, an orthographic detail absent in the naming of most US “Gruyère”.