Gruyere Cheese Can Come From Anywhere, Doesn't Need Trademark Protection, U.S. Judge Says

A U.S. judge ruled last week that gruyere cheese does not have to be from Gruyeres, Switzerland, in order to be sold under the name.

Gruyere, a popular cheese for fondues because of its mild taste and smooth melting, has been made in the region around Gruyeres since the early 12th century. An association of French and Swiss cheesemakers sued in district court after the federal Trademark Trials and Appeals Board denied an application for trademark protections.

The group argued that the case was like that of champagne, in which to wine aficionados, true champagne comes from the Champagne region of France and is made under certain regulations. The same is to be said for the gruyere cheese, according to the group.

However, the U.S. Dairy Export Council and other groups opposed the trademark protection, saying American consumers understand the gruyere name to be generic, applying to cheeses of a certain style regardless of their place of origin.

Similar trademark protections have been placed on Roquefort cheese, the oldest of cheeses, and Cognac brandy, both made in France. However, U.S. Judge T.S. Ellis believes the same case can't be made for gruyere.

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

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the use of the gruyere name and none of the requirements specify its place of origin, as Ellis cited.

Gruyere cheese is made from milk from cows that roam the pastures of the Fribourg Prealps and naturally forage. Their milk is then delivered daily to local cheese dairies, where the milk is mixed with other ingredients. It is then compressed with a weight for 20 hours to prepare it for aging, which can take up to 18 months.

Gruyere Cheese
A U.S. judge ruled last week that Gruyere cheese does not have to be from Gruyeres, Switzerland, in order to be sold under the name. Above, gruyere cheese wheels mature in a giant cellar in Bulle, western Switzerland, on August 29, 2011. Fabrice Coffrini/Getty Images

Shawna Morris, a senior vice president for trade policy with the U.S. Dairy Export Council, said the legal battle over gruyere is part of an increased effort in Europe to seek international trade protection for a variety of products, including gorgonzola, asiago and feta cheeses and bologna lunch meats.

"We're thrilled that the judge made a great call here, in our view," she said.

The European consortium did not return an email seeking comment. In court papers, its lawyers argued that Swiss and French gruyere is "painstakingly made from local, natural ingredients using traditional methods that assure the connection between the geographic region and the quality and characteristics of the final product."

They said allowing others to use the gruyere name would confuse American consumers.

The group is looking to overturn Ellis' ruling.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.