More than 50 members of the U.S. Senate encouraged U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to thwart European Union efforts to require the United States to accept the E.U.’s “geographical indications,” which would prohibit U.S. food manufacturers from marketing certain products both domestically and in export markets under what have become recognized as common names, such as asiago cheese and bologna, in a prospective free trade agreement.

The E.U. asserts the use of food names originally associated with regions or cities, such as asiago, a type of cheese that first was produced near the town of Asiago in Italy’s Vincenza province, should be restricted for use by food manufacturers in those regions. The senators declaimed the E.U.’s gambit as an attempt to enshrine a trade barrier in what was hoped will be a pact that will reduce and not increase barriers to trade.

The March 11 letter was co-authored by Senators Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Charles Schumer of New York and was sent to Ambassador Froman and Secretary Vilsack as they met with their E.U. counterparts in the latest round of negotiations on the proposed Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T.T.I.P.).

The senators commended Ambassador Froman and Secretary Vilsack for their past work in fighting the growing geographical indication (G.I.) restrictions promoted by the E.U.

“This trade barrier is of great concern to dairy and other food manufacturers in our states,” the senators said. “On their behalf, we urge you to continue to push back against the E.U.’s efforts to restrict our cheese exports, particularly to nations with which we already have free trade agreements. In addition, we urge you to make clear to your E.U. counterparts that the U.S. will reject any proposal in the T.T.I.P. negotiations now under way that would restrict in any way the ability of U.S. producers to use common cheese names.”

The senators asserted that the E.U. has used free trade agreements to persuade trading partners to impose barriers to U.S. exports “under the guise of protection for its geographical indications.” They pointed to the example of Canada, which agreed as part of its recently concluded free trade agreement with the E.U. to impose new restrictions on the use of “feta” and other common cheese names.

“Common names for products such as ‘feta’ are clearly generic in Canada, as they are in many other countries,” the senators said. “These restrictions not only threaten harm to the companies currently involved in the Canadian market, but they would also impair market access for U.S. dairy products that we are now attempting to secure under ongoing trade negotiations.”

The senators said similar trade barriers were cropping up throughout Latin America as well and were under discussion in many Asian countries involved in negotiations with the E.U. They claimed the E.U. now was seeking to more directly impair U.S. competition by imposing restrictions on the use of common food names through T.T.I.P.

“In the states that we represent, many small or medium-sized family-owned farms and firms could have their business unfairly restricted by the E.U.’s push to use geographical indications as a barrier to dairy trade and competition,” the senators said. “As we begin to engage in T.T.I.P. negotiations that are ultimately intended to bring about a better economic climate on both sides of the Atlantic by lowering barriers to trade, we strongly oppose the E.U.’s gratuitous use of G.I.s as a protectionist measure.”

The U.S. food industry commended the senators for taking a stand on the issue.

“These lawmakers understand the importance of lowering trade barriers and fighting the kinds of restrictions that have the capacity to stall job growth in the United States and limit our expanding dairy export market,” said Connie Tipton, president and chief executive officer of the International Dairy Foods Association. “Protecting the ability of U.S. cheese makers to use common cheese names is a top priority for I.D.F.A. T.T.I.P. is an opportunity to lift trade barriers, not impose new ones.”

Tom Suber, president of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, said, “Over the past five years, U.S. cheese exports have been growing by an average of 40% annually, leading to a record high of $1.4 billion in U.S. cheese sales abroad last year.”

Mr. Suber noted that in 2013, the United States became the largest single country cheese exporter in the world.

“So it’s vital to ensure that unfounded barriers to trade do not hinder this continued growth path for our industry,” he said.

Jim Mulhern, president and chief executive officer of the National Milk Producers Federation, said, “For consumers both here and abroad, the consequences of limiting familiar food names to just a few regional suppliers would be higher costs, fewer choices and greater confusion. No one country has any right to own common food names for their exclusive use. U.S. businesses should have the opportunity to offer their award-winning products, and let consumers decide what they want to buy.

“It is American food companies that have helped popularize many cheeses with old world origins, leading to increased sales for all.”

Strong support for the senators’ stance also came from the Consortium for Common Food Names (C.C.F.N.), an international alliance of food industry associations established to combat the G.I. efforts of the E.U.

“On behalf of food producers around the world, we thank the senators for joining us in shining a spotlight on the harm that the E.U.’s predatory approach to G.I.s is causing internationally,” said Errico Auricchio, chairman of the C.C.F.N. “Producers everywhere — whether in the United States, Costa Rica, Guatemala or Germany — have a right to use names that have been in the public domain.”

Jaime Castaneda, executive director of the C.C.F.N., said some U.S. cheese manufacturers have been making award-winning cheeses with common names like “asiago” and “muenster” for decades and proudly have labeled their products as “Made in America” while giving a nod to the historic origins of the cheese.

“In this way, they and their counterparts in dozens of countries around the world have done the lion’s share of the work building markets for these products, thereby expanding demand for products made in both Europe and in many other nations,” Mr. Castaneda said. “While the letter focuses on cheese, which has been particularly hard hit by the E.U.’s most recent efforts, European G.I.s encompass many food and beverage categories, meaning many areas of food trade worldwide are potentially threatened by the E.U.’s unfair claims to the exclusive use of common food names.”

What's at risk?

The list below contains examples of common food names that may be at risk under the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

Monterey/Monterey Jack

Source: Consortium for Common Food Names