Guest Columns

Cheese Lineage

Aspects of most cheese types trace back through multiple countries

John Lucey

John Lucey is director of the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, Madison, Wis. He is a guest columnist for Cheese Market News®.

While the birthplace of cheese is unknown, many believe that the very first cheese was likely made as long ago as 9,000 years, somewhere between Central Asia and the Middle East. Cheese was mentioned in the Old Testament and by the ancient Greeks and Romans. It is also worth noting that the major steps in cheesemaking (use of acid or rennet to coagulate milk; cutting curds; cooking; drainers/sieves to separate whey; dry salting or brining; cave ripening, etc.) were already well developed prior to the introduction of cheesemaking into Europe by various population migrations (e.g., the Celts, Romans, etc.). Bottom-line, cheesemaking is a part of human history that is shared by many cultures. This history lesson may be of particular interest to the European Union (EU), which is pushing the European Commission to grant protected geographical indication (GI) status to many common name cheeses ­— cheeses that have, in fact, been made around the world for many hundreds of years.

This movement to “protect” common cheese names is in line with the current trend to create barriers and label products in a way that aligns more with public or political opinions than with science. For example, labeling products as genetically modified organism (GMO) free, natural, hormone free, etc., has become a major trend in the food industry. Companies use these labels to try to differentiate their products from others and create a niche, but in many cases there is no scientific evidence that these labeled products are any better or healthier than their competition.

It can be argued that GI falls into this current labeling trend. Defined as “a distinctive sign used to identify a product originating in a specific territory of a particular country, region or locality where its quality, reputation or other characteristics are linked to its geographical region,” GI opens itself up to many arguments. For example, by that definition, the EU should have to prove that cheeses such as havarti, parmesan, provolone, muenster, asiago, etc., originated in a specific country within the EU, and that the quality, reputation and characteristics of the cheeses are intimately linked to those regions. This is an almost impossible task, especially when one considers that during the 2014 World Champion Cheese Contest, international judges evaluated cheese from all around the world, and awarded cheesemakers from the U.S. top awards in havarti, parmesan, gorgonzola, feta and many other cheeses that the EU would like to see “protected” under GI. U.S. cheesemakers also took home 59 gold medals out of the 90 categories judged, with 33 of those gold medals coming from Wisconsin alone, which demonstrates that outstanding cheese quality is not confined to the EU.

It will be just as difficult to prove that these cheeses originated solely within these EU countries that are claiming them for GI “protection.” Take for example Munster cheese, which has GI status in France and is associated with the Alsace region that is close to the borders of France and Germany. Its origins can actually be traced back to the seventh century when Irish monks/missionaries brought this washed rind cheese type with them as they set out to bring Christianity back to many parts of Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. The word Munster itself refers to one of the four provinces in Ireland (i.e., Munster, Leinster, Ulster and Connacht). So that begs the question, is this cheese type really an Irish cheese that migrants took to another country (France)? Then again, who brought that cheese knowledge to Ireland in the first place? White feta-type cheeses stored in ceramic jars containing brine also were being produced around 1200 BC in the Middle East. The examples go on and on. It’s clear that it is virtually impossible to credit a single country with “originating” all aspects of a cheese variety.

It’s also worth noting that for thousands of years people around the world have been developing, sharing and trading cheese products with minimal issues. Remember the Irish monks who set up over 40 monasteries across central Europe in the Middle Ages and brought their food and culture with them? Whiskey, vodka, chocolate and many other food items have a story of origin related to a particular area/country but today those products are made throughout the world and are traded with minimal restrictions. It may seem somewhat ridiculous, but consider the ramifications if, for example, Central America decided to take back the common name for chocolate, which is a food that has been manufactured and traded globally for hundreds of years. Yet this is essentially what the EU is trying to do; and by doing so, they are hurting themselves as well as others. Another example is Denmark’s feta. Once considered a superior product by many Middle Eastern consumers, Denmark was largely forced out of the feta market when Greece successfully obtained GI status. This sort of competition is simply not logical; it’s political! Healthy competition is good, but it should always be the consumer’s decision whether they wish to buy feta from Denmark, havarti made in Wisconsin or mozzarella made in Italy.

Cheesemaking technology has evolved significantly over the years as have the methods and procedures for producing even the most traditional cheeses. Most cheeses are quite different from what would have been made and sold even 100 years ago. Think of all the improved equipment/technologies that allow us to produce safer and higher-quality cheeses (e.g., milking machines, milk refrigeration, defined starter cultures, etc.). So, rather than creating barriers and trade agreements that block progress and consumer options, the cheese industry should instead be focusing on manufacturing high quality and safe cheese, regardless of the plant location. The EU should respect the hard work and tradition of U.S. cheesemakers and be proud that havarti, parmesan, muenster and so many other cheeses are successful thanks to the talented cheesemakers throughout the entire world. Instead of GI and trade barriers, let’s propose instead to make the highest quality cheese and allow consumers to decide which cheeses live up to their expectations.


The views expressed by CMN’s guest columnists are their own opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of Cheese Market News®.

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