Why are Swiss angry with Americans about Gruyere cheese?

Swiss cheesemakers have lost a crucial American court case, but it looks like they’ll fondue something about it.

A picture taken on December 12, 2014 shows a Gruyere cheese wheel at the Rungis international market in Rungis outside Paris.  Photo: ELIOT BLONDET / AFP
A picture taken on December 12, 2014 shows a Gruyere cheese wheel at the Rungis international market in Rungis outside Paris. Photo: ELIOT BLONDET / AFP

Swiss dairy producers are cheesed off after an American court ruled ‘Gruyere cheese’ does not have to come from the Gruyères region in order to bear the name. 

A legal consortium representing Swiss and French cheesemakers had sued for trademark protection, hoping to claim ownership of the name in a similar way to champagne, Scotch whisky or cognac. 

The American court however denied the claim, saying American consumers considered Gruyere as a style of cheese rather than a product from a particular origin. 

As a consequence, American cheesemakers or indeed dairy producers from any other region were free to sell Gruyere cheese in the US under the Gruyere name. 

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In effect, the judge found Gruyere to be just a variety of cheese like cheddar, rather than a protected product from a certain region like Roquefort. 

According to the judge, it appears the popularity and ubiquity of the cheese may have been its downfall. 

“It is clear from the record that the term Gruyere may have in the past referred exclusively to cheese from Switzerland and France,” the judge wrote. 

“However, decades of importation, production, and sale of cheese labeled Gruyere produced outside the Gruyère region of Switzerland and France have eroded the meaning of that term and rendered it generic.”

In effect, the judge held that when American consumers scour supermarket shelves for Gruyere, they do not believe they are buying a product which is or which must be imported from Switzerland. 

The legal consortium has promised to appeal the ruling in the US courts. 

What does this mean for Swiss consumers? 

The ruling, while important in the context of export, does little to influence the protected status of the name in Switzerland and in the European Union and the United Kingdom. 

Gruyere is one of of 12 cheeses from Switzerland which is a part of the European Union’s Protected designation of origin (Appellation d’origine protégée) framework. 

This means that use of the name is protected in these territories. 

Some of the other cheeses to be offered protection include Emmethal, Raclette du Valais and Ticino Alpkäse. 

The full list can be seen here. 

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How Switzerland is protecting its cheeses from foreign influence

Neutral Switzerland has not been involved in any foreign wars for centuries, but lately the country has been doing battle over its cheese.

How Switzerland is protecting its cheeses from foreign influence

Makers of the country’s iconic Emmental and Gruyère cheeses have been locked in legal battles to protect their product from inferior foreign imitations. 

Named after the Bern’s Emmental valley where it is produced, the Emmental cheese has a distinctly mild and nutty taste and is also the only Swiss cheese with holes, which “range from the size of cherries to the size of nuts and are formed during the maturation process”, according to Switzerland Cheese Marketing board.

In Switzerland, the Emmental is protected by an AOP — Appellation d’Origine Protégée, which means the product is entirely made in its region of origin.

This label also means the cheese must meet strict criteria, such as the size of the holes, which should ideally be between two and four centimetres in diameter.

However, the Emmental is also made in France and Germany, but Swiss producers claim foreign cheese does not meet the same exacting standards and has little to do with the original recipe.

They have been fighting for years for better protection of the brand manufactured and sold outside Switzerland, but to avail: the European Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) ruled that “Emmental” doesn’t designate the geographical origin of the product, but only a certain type of cheese with holes.

This decision really cheesed the Swiss off and they filed a complaint against EUIPO’s decision with the General Court of the European Union, which will begin deliberations in September.

READ MORE: Ten varieties of cheese you should be able to identify if you live in Switzerland

However, the Emmental is not the only Swiss cheese caught up in an international legal tangle; Gruyère suffered a similar fate.

An American court ruled in January 2022 that ‘Gruyere cheese’ does not have to be made in the Gruyères region — or even in Switzerland, for that matter —in order to bear the name. 

Swiss cheesemakers said they would appeal the US ruling, but in the meantime the verdict grates on their nerves.

“Gruyère represents a centuries-old traditional recipe, and a region of Switzerland,” an angry Philippe Bardet, director of the Association of Swiss Gruyère Producers, told Switzerland’s Blick newspaper.

“When consumers buy a Gruyère in the United States, they have no idea what awaits them”, he said. “Does the cheese have holes? What milk was it made with?”

Bardet pointed out that Swiss Gruyère producers use only raw milk from cows that eat natural food  — pasture grass in summer and hay in winter .

But in  America, “they use cheap milk”, he said. 

READ MORE: Why are Swiss angry with Americans about Gruyere cheese?