Cheese in the USA, between laws, PDO and intellectual property

Every country has its own laws regarding health and safety, and as such, some products are forbidden for import and consumption. Those policies can be observed for many dangerous items, such as the fugu fish, which can cause death if cooked improperly or some endangered species, that are regarded as a delicacy in some countries, and as a no go in others. One of the most famous examples is the USA’s policy regarding cheeses and some other dairies.

The ban of certain cheeses in the US

There are two main health laws that prevent some cheeses from being imported in the USA. The most well-known is the regulation about unpasteurized milk. In the US, unpasteurized milk is considered hazardous, and is a forbidden item, both as a consumer product and as an ingredient.

The second one is the amount of bacteria present in cheeses. In order to mature, most cheeses use bacteria that will break enzymes, which causes new tastes to develop during the aging process. There are two ways for a cheese to be banned due to bacteria: it uses a bacteria that is forbidden in the US, or the cheese’s bacteria level is above the legal threshold.

There are also regulations, which, rather than an interdiction, act as a deterrent, like the 300% importation tax on Roquefort. This doesn’t strictly forbid the consumption but makes the importation way less profitable for cheese reseller, and very expensive for cheese aficionados, that have to pay four times the price of the product on top of the shipping fees. This caused Roquefort to become a luxury product and encouraged many US cheesemaker to replicate its cheese making process locally with their own blue cheese.

How do these regulation change the consumption of cheeses in the US

As mentioned before, it caused many cheeses to be replicated in the US with pasteurized milks and other bacteria. There are gourmet arguments about the taste and the health benefits of raw milk and how the change of recipe makes the product different. This also poses two legal dilemmas:

  • Under what name can the product be marketed, if the inspiration comes from a PDO (protected designation of origin)
  • How far can one copy a foreign cheesemaker’s labor without infringing on intellectual property

The impossibility to buy some PDO in the US

PDO are protected products. For example, you cannot name a wine a Champagne if it wasn’t made in the region of Champagne, or if the product isn’t made following specific conditions. For cheese, the PDO is subjected to the use of unpasteurized milk. It means that replicas cannot carry the same name, even if they are made in the original region. It is why you will never see a “brie de Meaux” in the US, and that some cheese shop will lack a proper appealing commercial name for their cheese. They will sometimes describe them as “brie-like cheeses”, or “Roquefort-style” without being able to adopt the PDO.

The replication of cheese and intellectual property

Intellectual property is a way to protect the know-how of artisans and the creators of other products to prevent copy and other parasitic practices. However, those rules differ from country to country. Over the years, some international accords have budded with the World Trade Organization. Countries have established a list of products to protect, and the EU’s list contains many culinary products, including cheeses. However, in the current state of affairs, the accords only protect the commercial name, which mean that US cheesemakers are free to replicate the know how of the world’s best artisans without infringing on internationally protected intellectual property.

Author: Peter Dawson,

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