Cantwell, Colleagues Urge Trump Administration to Stand Up for American Cheese Producers

Washington, D.C. – In the midst of ongoing re-negotiations of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) today joined a bipartisan group of her colleagues in calling on the Trump Administration to protect Washington state and American dairy and cheese producers from harmful foreign trade policies.

In a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Cantwell and 23 of her colleagues urged the administration to ensure Mexico honors its existing trade commitments and rejects the European Union’s (EU) unfair trade proposal that would require producers to change the names of cheeses they have made for generations, harming American cheese exporters, processors, and dairy farmers.

“In light of Mexico’s proposed agreement with the EU, we are deeply concerned that American cheesemakers will be harmed by a reversal of their current access to the Mexican market, and will be denied the opportunity to sell products to Mexican consumers using common cheese product names that have been marketed for decades,” the senators wrote. “…American cheese exporters should be allowed to continue using common food names that Mexican consumers are familiar with. Anything less would grant European producers access to the market share that American producers have developed over decades and unjustly award them the future growth opportunities of those products.”

The letter comes as dairy producers in Washington state and throughout the country have expressed concern about a reported agreement between Mexico and the European Union.

"The EU tactic of reserving hundreds of commonly referred to cheese names solely for themselves is a gross overreach and is simply erecting new non-tariff trade barriers," said Stan Ryan, Darigold President & CEO.  "Along with Canada's new Class 7 pricing scheme that is in violation of global trade commitments, we're reassured by the commitment of the Trump administration and the USTR team to address these issues as target priorities in NAFTA.  We're confident they will be successful.”

“Washington dairy farmers very much appreciate Senator Cantwell’s efforts to help US dairy farmers retain access and the opportunity to sell dairy products to Mexico – one of our most important markets. Trade restrictions, on common foods such as cheese, based simply on the common name of the product is wrong and harmful,” said Jay Gordon, policy director for the Washington State Dairy Federation.

On April 21, 2018, the EU and Mexico reached a trade agreement that grants European producers exclusive rights to use 340 food names, known as “geographical indications,” in Mexico. Afterwards, media reports indicated that the agreement included many food names – most notably of cheeses – considered generic in the United States.

Geographical indications link a product to a particular region, associating that product to a geographical area because of a certain characteristic or reputation. The EU has aggressively pursued restrictions for cheeses, such as feta (Greece), muenster (France), and parmesan (Italy), in their international trade policies. While these names are covered as geographical indications within the EU, they are generic in the United States and in many other countries around the world.

Mexico is the largest export destination for American cheese, which accounted for around one third of the $1.3 billion in dairy products the United States exported to Mexico in 2017. Without the ability to use common cheese names in Mexico, American producers could lose market share they have spent years developing.

Washington state’s dairy industry is a crucial part of the state’s economy. The 480 dairy farms and 10 dairy plants throughout the state export $152 million worth of product every year, creating 1,680 jobs in Washington state and generating $317 million in economic activity. Statewide, the dairy industry is the second largest agricultural industry, contributing almost $1.1 billion to the Washington economy every year.

In addition to Senator Cantwell, the letter was also signed by U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Pat Toomey (R-PA), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Jerry Moran (R-KS), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), John Thune (R-SD), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Roy Blunt (R-MO), Tina Smith (D-MN), Ron Johnson (R-WI), Charles Schumer (D-NY), Rob Portman (R-OH), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Charles Grassley (R-IA), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Tom Udall (D-NM), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and Todd Young (R-IN).

The full text of the letter is available HERE.