Whose cheese is it anyway? The Swiss ponder the international politics of gruyere

Roberto Castaneda, left, from Argentina, and Max McCalman inspect a wheel of gruyere during the first day of judging for 2014 World Championship Cheese Contest Tuesday, March 18, 2014, in Madison, Wis. Entries in the 2014 World Championship Cheese Contest reached a new record this year, growing five percent to more than 2,600 entries from 22 nations around the world. (AP Photo/Carrie Antlfinger)

(Carrie Antlfinger / Associated Press)

Whose cheese is it anyway? The Swiss ponder the international politics of gruyere


Nicholas Goldberg

March 16, 2023

Switzerland is a small country that is not known for too many things. It

s got its cheese, its banks, its mountains, its neutrality, its watches, its pocket

knives and its chocolate.

If any of those is threatened threatened with cultural appropriation, that is beware! The Swiss take this stuff seriously.

Thats what accounts for two recent crises, one over the labeling of gruyere cheese and another over the packaging of Toblerone chocolates. (Perhaps you blinked and missed them.)

Lets start with gruyere.

Gruyere is, as the “Oxford Companion to Cheese” puts it, among the greatest of all cheeses. It orginated in


La Gruyre,


region not far from the French-Swiss border, where its been produced for almost 1,000 years. A smooth, mild, hard cheese, it is made from the unpasteurized milk of cows that roam idyllic pastures high in the mountains using rigorous traditional methods passed down through the generations.

But in the last few decades its been made elsewhere too. And the Swiss are not happy about it, nor are their neighbors in France.

At issue before the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this month was whether American cheese makers in Wisconsin, Idaho and elsewhere are within their rights to make and label cheese under the name gruyere even though theyve only been doing so for several decades, they dont adhere strictly to the traditional process and the cheese theyre selling isnt from La Gruyre or

La Gruyre adjacent


the region nearby.

The Swiss and French cheese makers said, well, of course they’re not.

Bien sr que non


The Americans, for their part, said the Europeans should chill out and get over themselves. The name gruyere is generic, like bologna or frankfurters.

No one expects bologna to come from Bologna.

Now its true that this dispute doesnt have the significance of the war in Ukraine or the gathering climate crisis.

But it captured my attention. Bitter cheese makers fighting an across-the-ocean battle! And theres a fair amount of cheese at stake. Seven million pounds of gruyere were imported from Switzerland in 2020 and almost 40,000 pounds of French gruyere were sold in the U.S. in 2016, according to the court of appeals. Millions more pounds of so-called gruyere are produced in the U.S.

In the end, the American cheese makers won the day. They convinced first the U.S. Patent and Trade

mark O

ffice, then a federal district court and finally last month the 4th Circuit




ourt that the name “gruyere” has become generic. Under the law, that means that when U.S. consumers go into a store and ask for gruyere they understand it to be a


of cheese not a cheese made in a particular region.

But Ill go out on a limb and say I think thats just the wrong way to look at the issue.

Theres a principle at stake. Its their cheese, not ours. It’s their tradition.

By and large, Americans understand that champagne comes from the Champagne wine region in France, and that if its from elsewhere, it should be called sparkling wine.

Roquefort cheese has had a protective designation under U.S. rules since 1953. Parmigiano Reggiano cheese also gets a certification mark like the one the Swiss and French were seeking for gruyere. Those designations make it much harder for others to co-opt the name.

So what is gruyere chopped liver? Why doesnt it deserve protection too? 

Allowing the name to be used by any old cheese maker because it has become generic is circular logic. Of course Americans dont associate gruyere exclusively with the mountains of Europe because for decades theyve also seen gruyere from Wisconsin and elsewhere on supermarket shelves. Now that false branding has become the justification for continuing the charade.

The U.S. Dairy Export Council, which opposed protection for gruyere, argued that the case was a plot by well-resourced European interests to confiscate common names. In other words, they blamed it on Big Cheese.But it

It seems to me that 1,000 years ought to count for something. Standards matter; traditions matter; names matter. If U.S. cheese makers want to make a similar cheese, no one is stopping them. But they shouldnt pretend its gruyere.

They should create their own damn name (as Im told many artisanal cheese makers already do).


okay OK

, enough about cheese. Let’s move on to another dispute over Switzerland’s cultural legacy


This time the issue is chocolate. Specifically, Toblerone chocolate.

Toblerone was founded 115 years ago by a Swiss confectioner named Theodor Tobler. The chocolates are so identified with that country that their package includes a depiction of the national flag and the landmark Swiss mountain, the Matterhorn. The chocolates are even shaped like the Matterhorn, sort of.

But now, the chocolate maker has decided to move some of its chocolate production out of the country. It is being outsourced to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, where wages are lower and, presumably, chocolate-making is cheaper.

Who made such a decision? The current owner of Toblerone Mondelz International,

a Deerfield, Ill. an Illinois-based

conglomerate that also owns Oreos, Trident gum, Tang and, until recently, Philadelphia Cream Cheese. (Hey, is that really made in Philadelphia?)

Unfortunately for Mondelz, the country’s laws regarding “Swissness”


allow national symbols to be used to promote chocolate


when 100% of the products milk and 80% of its other materials are sourced from Switzerland.

So last week the company announced that to comply with Swiss law, the image of the Matterhorn and the national flag will be removed from the chocolate box.

This issue doesnt get me as exercised as


fate of gruyere, but I must admit I was dismayed to learn that my go-to Swiss chocolate was actually being made in Slovakia by an American conglomerate.

There are plenty of benefits to globalization, no doubt. But at the same time, multinationalism, commercialism and conglomeration have their drawbacks.

First the Americans appropriated gruyere. Now Toblerone has decamped to Bratislava. And no, for the record, Philadelphia Cream Cheese was never from Philadelphia.