Gruyere Cheese Can Come from Anywhere, Judge Rules

Court rejects claim that only cheeses from Gruyeres, Switzerland, can be called ‘gruyere.’

January 11, 2022


Gruyère au lait cru. Human hand in black disposable latex glove holding piece of gruyère. High point of view.

Photo by: annick vanderschelden photography/Getty

annick vanderschelden photography/Getty

Does all “gruyere” cheese have to come from the area around Gruyeres, Switzerland, where the mild, pale, semi-hard cheese, good for sliding onto a cracker or melting into a fondue, has been made according to longstanding traditions since early in the 12th century? A federal judge says no.

A group of Swiss and French cheesemakers argued in a suit filed in U.S. District Court in Virginia that the use of the name “Gruyere” on cheese ought to be restricted to cheeses made in the region — similar to the way sparkling wine labeled “Champagne” is generally restricted to those made in Champagne, France.

However, U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis rejected their claim in a decision made public last week following a long legal battle that itself followed an earlier denial of trademark protection by the federal Trademark Trials and Appeals Board, the Associated Press reports.

Ellis said American consumers consider the name “gruyere” to be a sort of broad, “generic” term for a certain type of cheese and not strictly associated with a specific geographic place of origin.

“The record evidence of common usage and industry practice points clearly to the conclusion that while some individuals understand GRUYERE to have an association with Switzerland (and, to a lesser degree, France), the term GRUYERE has come to have a well-accepted generic meaning through the process of genericide and is no longer universally understood to indicate cheese produced in the Gruyère region,” Ellis wrote in his decision.

Ellis also noted that the Food and Drug Administration does not stipulate a specific place of origin for gruyere in its regulation of the term and that the World Championship Cheese Competition, held annually in Wisconsin, had many entrants in its Gruyere category made in countries outside of Switzerland and France, including “the United States, Australia, South Africa, and Denmark, further demonstrating the widespread genericness of the term GRUYERE.”

The ruling was a win for a coalition of groups including the U.S. Dairy Export Council, National Milk Producers Federation and the Consortium for Common Food Names that had opposed the Gruyere-based cheesemakers’ pursuit of geographic-origin-based trademark protection.

“This is a huge victory for common sense and for hard-working manufacturers and dairy farmers,” Krysta Harden, U.S. Dairy Export Council president and CEO, said in a statement shared by the National Milk Producers Federation. “When a word is used by multiple companies in multiple stores and restaurants every day for years, as gruyere has been, that word is generic, and no one owns the exclusive right to use it. We are gratified that Judge Ellis saw this straightforward situation so clearly and upheld the USPTO Trademark Trial and Appeal Board’s finding that gruyere is an established generic term.”

The Swiss and French cheesemakers have said they plan to appeal. But, for now, at least, that “gruyere” in your gratin can be from here, there … or anywhere.

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