Judge Rules U.S. Cheesemakers Can Still Make 'Gruyere'

Despite its affiliation with Switzerland and France, a U.S. District Court found that Americans view Gruyere as a style of cheese, rather than a region.

Gruyere cheese on a board, being cut with a cheese knife
Photo: Getty Images

After a lengthy legal fight, a U.S. District Court judge has ruled that Gruyere cheese does not have to come from the area in or around Gruyeres, Switzerland in order to be labeled Gruyere, writing in his decision that Americans don't associate that cheese with that town. The Interprofession du Gruyère and Syndicat Interprofessionel du Gruyère — the associations that represent Swiss and French Gruyere, respectively — filed the lawsuit after they were denied trademark protection for the word "Gruyere" last year.

According to the Associated Press, the French and Swiss consortium based their argument around the history of the cheese, which they said had been made in that region since sometime in the 12th century. U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis didn't dispute the cheese's lengthy backstory, but he said that American consumers didn't necessarily take that into account when they bought a cheese labeled with that particular G-word.

"It is clear from the record that the term GRUYERE may have in the past referred exclusively to cheese from Switzerland and France," the judge wrote, according to the AP. "However, decades of importation, production, and sale of cheese labeled GRUYERE produced outside the Gruyère region of Switzerland and France have eroded the meaning of that term and rendered it generic."

That's similar to what the two groups heard from the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) last August. In a 65-page ruling, the TTAB said that cheese buyers "understand the term 'gruyere'" referred to a kind of cheese that didn't necessarily have to come from Switzerland or France.

"The record demonstrates that cheese identified as 'gruyere' is made in many locations including Germany, Austria and the United States," the board's ruling read. "Those knowledgeable of the World Championship Cheese Contest will know that non-Swiss and non-French producers of cheese (along with Swiss or French producers) are listed as winners in 'gruyere' categories for each year for which there is evidence."

The U.S. Dairy Export Council wrote on its blog that, in the months before the trademark hearing, attorneys for Switzerland's Interprofession du Gruyère had been sending "threatening cease-and-desist letters" to U.S. manufacturers that were using the term gruyere for their cheeses. (The association also helpfully suggested some alternate names for U.S. versions, including "alpine cheese," "mountain cheese," or "mountain-style cheese.")

Judge Ellis' ruling may not be the end of this particular food fight: the Gruyere consortium plans to appeal the decision. And, in an interesting footnote, France and Switzerland haven't always been "alpine cheese" allies. Several years ago, both French and Swiss Gruyere-makers both received Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée ("controlled designation of origin") certification in their respective countries. But then France tried to go one step farther, applying for an Appellation d'origine protégée ("protected designation of origin").

As the Guardian reported at the time, the Swiss protested, since the actual town of Gruyeres is in Switzerland — so French gruyere couldn't be made entirely within that protected area. The European Union sided with Switzerland.

This all seems like something that could have been settled over a pot of fondue.

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