WASHINGTON â€” Hang on to your brats, America.
Europeans negotiating a free trade deal with the United States have been angling to reserve names like “feta” and “parmesan” only for cheese made in Europe. As it turns out, they also want to mandate that beer names like “Oktoberfest” and meat monikers like, yes, “bratwurst” be allowed on only European-produced beer and sausages.
With a veritable Holy Trinity at risk â€” cheese, brats and beer â€” Wisconsin Democrat Sen. Tammy Baldwin jumped into action Friday, persuading a bipartisan group of colleagues to sign on to letters to U.S. trade negotiators urging them to warn Europeans that America won’t accept such naming restrictions. She signed onto a similar letter last month about cheese names.
If U.S. negotiators agree to European demands, U.S. manufacturers would have to change product names to “bratwurst-style sausages,” “Oktoberfest-like ale” or “the lunch meat formerly known as bologna.”
“The current trade proposal by the European Union creates an uneven playing field for our Wisconsin business to compete, export and grow,” Baldwin said. “I consider this an attack on our proud traditions and I am standing up for Wisconsin cheese, brats and beer.”
Wisconsin colleague Republican Sen. Ron Johnson and more than 40 others signed on to her letter to Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Trade Representative Michael Froman, who has been negotiating the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union.
“We urge you to make clear to your EU counterparts that the United States will reject any proposal in TTIP negotiations that would in any way restrict the ability of U.S. producers to use common meat names, such as bologna or black forest ham,” Baldwin wrote.
She sent a similar letter about beer, saying brewers both large and small are concerned about the naming restrictions, known as geographic indications or GIs. They have already been included in recent EU agreements with Canada and other countries. Feta cheese sold in Canada cannot be called “feta” unless it is from Greece.
An aide to the U.S. trade representative said the agency received the letters and would respond directly to the senators. The aide declined to elaborate. The agency said last month that conversations are in the early stages but that the U.S. and EU have “different points of view” on the naming restrictions.
Europeans haven’t made their demands public. European Commission spokesman Roger Waite has only said the naming “is an important issue for the EU.”
The EU has led the way in protecting names associated with region-specific products. For example, Cognac must come from the Cognac region of France, Roquefort cheese must be produced in Roquefort, and Parma ham must come from Parma, Italy.
“The protection of geographical indications matters economically and culturally,” the European Commission website says. “They can create value for local communities through products that are deeply rooted in tradition, culture and geography. They support rural development and promote new job opportunities in production, processing and other related services.”
In Baldwin’s home state of Wisconsin, though, accepting such protective measures could be devastating. Mark Schleitwiler, vice president of Wisconsin-based BelGioioso Cheese said just changing packaging alone would be a “staggering expense.” The industry would then have to choose different names, and re-educate customers.
He said it would be difficult to unite under one name. “What do you call it? he said. How much consumer confusion would there be?”
Zillman’s Meat Market has been selling brats and other sausages from its central Wisconsin store for more than 50 years. Current offerings include Polish blood sausages known as kiszka and German mettwurst sausages. Pat Zillman, who runs the market founded by his father, said Friday that he doesn’t understand why Europeans would want to stop American companies from using European names.
“It just doesn’t make any sense to me,” he said. “The people that live here, if you go back in our family trees, most everybody’s from there. There’s Germans here and there’s Polish people here. … You would think they would want to keep their traditions alive and well in the United States.”
At Glenn’s Market & Catering, which makes some 40 types of brats at its headquarters about an hour outside Milwaukee, sentiments were a little more brash.
“It’s a little ridiculous,” said Jeff Roberts, son of founder Glenn Roberts. “In order to go through and change all the things that we call ‘bratwurst’ now to something else would be kind of ridiculous.”
Roberts said he may be willing to make some concessions, though.
“They can have ‘weiner schnitzel,'” he said. “We don’t use that very often. Give them that one; make them happy. That’s good enough.'”
Contributing: The Associated Press