‘Gruyere’ cheese can keep its name in the US, rules court17 Mar 2023
A US court recently ruled in favour of American dairy manufacturers by allowing cheese products to use the name “gruyere” even if it is not made in the Gruyère region of Switzerland and France.
On 3 March, a US appeals court upheld a ruling from the US Patent and Trademark Office that the term “gruyere” – spelt in lower case letters and without the accented è– can be used to label and describe cheeses no matter their place of origin as it is a generic term.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does have a standard of identity for Gruyere-labelled cheese sold in the country, but it does not impose any geographic restrictions as to where that cheese can be produced.
Gruyère is a type of hard Swiss cheese commonly used in baking and dishes like French onion soup. It originated in Switzerland in 1115 AD but is now sold all over the world.
A ripe argument for name protection
In Switzerland, “Gruyère” is approved as a protected designation of origin, and as a protected geographical indication in France. These designations guarantee that food products originate in the specified region or follow a traditional production process, according to the US court ruling.
In 2021, two groups representing cheese producers from the Gruyère region argued that cheese made elsewhere should be restricted from using “gruyere” as a description or name.
This was rejected by the USPTO on the grounds that the term “gruyere” is generic and ineligible for trademark protection. Following an appeal, this month’s decision upheld that ruling.
“Like a fine cheese, this case has matured and is ripe for our review,” the ruling said. "Cheese – regardless of its location of production – has been labelled and sold as gruyere in America for decades.”
The court decision noted that approximately seven million pounds of gruyere cheese were imported from Switzerland to be sold in the US in 2020, and nearly 40,000 pounds of French gruyere cheese were sold in the US in 2016.
Additionally, gruyere cheese has been imported to the US from the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Denmark since at least 1995.
“Cheese consumers in the United States understand ‘gruyere’ to refer to a type of cheese, which renders the term generic,” the ruling said.
“The FDA standard of identity, the pervasive sales of non-Swiss and non-French cheese labelled as gruyere in the United States, and the common usage of gruyere ‘establish[es] that when purchasers walk into retail stores and ask for [gruyere], they regularly mean’ a type of cheese, and not a cheese that was produced in the Gruyère region of Switzerland and France.” the ruling concluded.
Setting a new precedent for common food names
US dairy groups considered the upheld ruling a “huge victory” for the industry.
“The United States remains a bastion for the defence of consumers’ and producers’ property rights that have been trampled in Europe and many countries around the world,” said Jaime Castaneda, executive director for Consortium for Common Food Names.
“The court has sent a clear message that European attempts to stop American producers from using generic food names in the US will be firmly rejected. It is a momentous victory for American consumers, farmers and food manufacturers.”
“This is an outstanding result for manufacturers and farmers here in the United States,” said Krysta Harden, president and CEO of the US Dairy Export Council.
“We’re grateful that the Appeals Court agreed that nobody owns the exclusive right to use generic terms. This sets a terrific precedent for the right to use common food names in the United States.
One of the groups that filed the appeal, Gruyère France, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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