7 August 2020TrademarksRory O'Neill

TTAB hands win to US dairy industry in Gruyere dispute

‘Gruyere’ is too generic to function as a trademark for cheese, according to the US Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB).

The decision, issued Wednesday, August 5, comes as a victory for the  US Dairy Export Council over a coalition of Swiss and French cheesemakers, who wanted to secure trademark rights for the name.

Interprofession du Gruyère (IDG), based in Switzerland, and France’s  Syndicat Interprofessionnel du Gruyère, filed the application in 2015.

The application specified that Gruyere is a cheese made in certain regions of France and Switzerland, prompting opposition from the US dairy industry.

The EU affords much stronger protection to geographical indications (GIs) and designations of origin than the US, meaning US food brands are more free to use terms which carry stringent rules in Europe.

Gruyere is protected in Switzerland and in the EU under the Protected Designation of Origin and GI schemes.

The opponents argued that the common meaning of Gruyere does not indicate cheese produced in France or Switzerland, citing US versions of the cheese such as Wisconsin Gruyere.

The TTAB agreed, finding that “cheese identified as ‘gruyere’ is made in many locations including Germany, Austria and the US”.

“After carefully considering all of the arguments and evidence of record, we find that purchasers and consumers of cheese understand the term ‘gruyere’ as a designation that primarily refers to a category within the genus of cheese that can come from anywhere,” the TTAB decision stated.

There is tension in international trade negotiations over the future of GI protections, with the US pushing for laxer rules. GIs are expected to be at issue in free trade negotiations with the US post-Brexit.

In June, the UK government drew criticism from the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator  Michel Barnier, after it tried to reopen an agreement protecting GIs.

GIs were included in the withdrawal agreement agreed between the UK and the EU ahead of Britain’s exit from the bloc.

“The UK has even wanted to reopen the whole question of GIs, which are clearly protected in the withdrawal agreement,” Barnier said, adding that this approach was not compatible with a sustainable future relationship.

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More on this story

18 June 2020   The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier has rebuked the UK government, after it attempted to reopen an agreement to protect geographical indications, such as champagne and parma ham.
2 December 2019   Leaked US-UK trade documents show that the UK government “has stood up to the US” by committing to a geographical indication registration system despite pressure to drop the system, says the Chartered Institute of Trademark Attorneys Brexit negotiator.
7 October 2020   Swiss and French cheesemakers want a US federal judge to overturn an order denying them trademark protection for Gruyère.