For over 900 years, farmers in an Alpine region between Switzerland and France have turned barrels of raw milk into wheels of smooth, nutty cheese known as Gruyère.
The reason: “Cheese consumers in the United States understand ‘GRUYERE’ to refer to a type of cheese, which renders the term generic,” judges at the Virginia-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit wrote in their ruling.
The decision, hailed as “a significant win for America’s dairy farmers” by the U.S. Dairy Export Council, followed a long-running legal saga between American cheesemakers and their Swiss and French counterparts — one that aimed to settle whether a cheese by any other location can still be Gruyère.
“Like a fine cheese, this case has matured and is ripe for our review,” the judges wrote of a battle for Gruyère that has curdled since 2015 — when Switzerland’s Interprofession du Gruyère and France’s Syndicat Interprofessionnel du Gruyère asked the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to certify that the cheese hails only from the hilly European region.
It wasn’t an uncommon move. Since 1953, for example, Roquefort has carried a geographical indication mark to certify it’s “been manufactured from sheep’s milk only, and has been cured in the natural caves of the community of Roquefort, Department of Aveyron, France.” So does Parmigiano reggiano, as a way to prove it’s from certain Italian provinces.
But the Patent and Trademark Office ultimately denied the groups’ application after the agency’s appeal board deemed the term generic — finding Gruyère amounted to “a category of cheese that may be made anywhere and evoke the Swiss and (occasionally) French origin.”
After the Swiss and French cheese producers disagreed, they filed a complaint in the Virginia district court, which upheld the ruling in 2021. The groups appealed, arguing the cheese’s rich tradition and cultural significance are worth protecting.
In Europe, Gruyère has a long and storied history. Legend has it that Roman emperor Antoninus Pius died a cheesy death in 161 A.D. after eating too much Gruyère. The Interprofession du Gruyère says the cheese — that’s now a staple in fondue and onion soup — has been produced in the Swiss region since 1115. Farmers there have since followed the same process to create Gruyère, according to the group, using milk from cows that are fed only Alpine grass. That milk curdles in copper vats before the wheels are given salt baths and allowed to mature for months.
The standards producers follow made it so Gruyère received a European Union designation in 2011 certifying it came from the Swiss Gruyères, a specific region, much like champagne, Kalamata olive oil and feta cheese. In 2013, French Gruyère was granted a protected label to prove it was produced from the milk of mountain cows in a specific region.
Yet the same rules don’t apply in the United States — and the judges found holes in the arguments made by the Swiss and French cheese producers.
For instance, between 2010 and 2020, the majority of the Gruyère-labeled cheese that was imported to the United States came from the Netherlands and Germany instead of Switzerland and France, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. The country also received “hundreds of thousands of pounds” of the cheese from Denmark, Tunisia, Egypt and Italy, the ruling states.
The judges also highlighted the American production of Gruyère, pointing out that supermarket Wegmans “sold more domestic gruyere-labeled cheese than Swiss gruyere-labeled cheese each year between 2016 and 2021 (except 2020).”
“This evidence strongly indicates that to the American purchaser, GRUYERE primarily signifies a type of cheese (much like brie, swiss, parmesan or mozzarella) regardless of regional origin,” the ruling states.
The decision came as a disappointment to the Swiss and French cheese producers, Richard Lehv, the attorney representing them, said in a statement.
“We think the actual situation in the U.S. market is different than as stated by the Court of Appeals, and we will continue to pursue vigorously our efforts to protect the certification mark for the high-quality Gruyère PDO product in the U.S.,” Lehv said.
Across social media, many from these countries were less than amused.
“The disrespect of the American law for [products with a protected designation] is unbearable,” a French user said. “Gruyère: a French culinary symbol under attack,” another person added.
But the misfortune for the European-made cheese appears to be far from over: Last week, a fire broke out inside a Swiss cheese depot, destroying the 12,000 wheels of Gruyère inside.