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Cheesemakers protest trade deal
An employee at Decatur Dairy flips long forms of Muenster cheese inside the factory Thursday, Feb. 27, in Brodhead. (Times photo: Anthony Wahl)
MONROE - The lengthy debate over changing cheese names could become even lengthier as Wisconsin cheesemakers push Congress to stop a free trade agreement that would outlaw the use of names like Muenster or Havarti in the U.S.

Ron Buholzer, president of Klondike Cheese Company, took a trip to Washington D.C. this February to talk with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and send out letters to congressmen to stop a European Union trade deal that could force cheesemakers to change the name of some of their signature cheeses.

"What the EU is doing is coming at us from several directions," Buholzer said. "It's not going to be an easily solved issue."

Canada, Costa Rica and Singapore have joined in the growing list of countries agreeing to the European Union's demand that certain cheese names apply exclusively to European cheesemakers. Some of the cheeses that could be affected are Muenster, havarti, Parmesan and feta.

Emmi Roth already changed the name of some of their Gruyere cheese back in 2012 as a company decision, but now the EU wants the entire U.S. to abide. Some dairy producers contend the names are general and don't apply to any specific regions.

Steve Stettler, master cheesemaker at Decatur Dairy Incorporated, said he doesn't know if the trade deal will affect the states but worries that exports to Canada will dry up.

"Maybe we could spell our havarti with two "i's," he said. "I hope it doesn't stop us trading Muenster with Canada."

Stettler said they can produce anywhere from 40,000 to 50,000 pounds of cheese per day.

"Other than exports, we are doing very well; it's keeping our dairy industry pretty strong now," he said.

Stettler said he has no problem with demands that names remain exclusive to a region where they are made, "but with Swiss and feta, for them to put claiming rights on us, I have a problem with that."

Stettler said he worries that if the names do change, anyone who looks at a recipe that calls for say, Muenster, could go down to a grocery store and end up buying imported cheese rather than locally produced cheese.

Buholzer said that the U.S. typically ships off about 16 percent of its domestically made cheese per day. This could be severely reduced if the trade deal is agreed upon.

"It could have a devastating effect on us," he said.

Buholzer said he feels dairy producers have a good lobbying arm in Congress that will battle this deal, but in the meantime, the EU may sign up other countries. Costa Rica will now only accept Parmesan cheese from Europe and negotiations are under way for more than 80 other countries.