Wisconsin companies enter cheese names debate

Parmesan cheese
Parmesan cheese

BROWN COUNTY - In 1979, Errico Auricchio moved from Italy to the United States to make cheese. Thirty-five years later, his Green Bay area-based company, BelGioioso, produces 27 Italian cheeses.

“The biggest one is parmesan,” said Auricchio.

Two weeks ago, Auricchio flew to Washington. He told top agriculture officials why he should be able to keep using the parmesan name and many others.

“Nobody can have the exclusive right to a name that is in the public domain,” said Auricchio. “Parmesan is not a name that I own. Nobody owns it. It's a common name.”

The European Union disagrees, saying parmesan should only come from Parma, Italy. Feta is another. Europeans believe it should only come from Greece. Romano, asiago, gorgonzola are just a few others. Europe argues when American companies use those names, it's misleading and is cutting into its profits.

“We think it's kind of a ridiculous contention,” said Gov. Scott Walker.

Walker says his administration plans to get involved. Wisconsin produces more than a quarter of the United States' cheeses.

“We think it should be a free and open market to sell cheese regardless of the name and we're going to work with our counterparts in the federal government to make sure we get that, in particular out of the European Union,” said Walker.

Federal officials have already started negotiations with Europe. Canada has already made an agreement. For example, Canada-made feta products must now be marketed as feta-like or feta-style.

It's a deal Auricchio hopes the U.S. can avoid.

“It's complicated by the fact you would have to find another common name for everybody,” said Auricchio. “The practicality would be very, very difficult.”

The European Union hasn't outlined what it is proposing. Although, it could go after the marketing of other foods like bologna, black forest ham and Greek yogurt.