Published March 19. 2014 4:00AM Updated March 19. 2014 11:23AM
Lyme - U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy didn't even have to taste the creamy golden cow's milk feta cheese made at Sankow's Beaver Brook Farm to know it was worth fighting for.
"A Camembert or a feta made here is just as good as a Camembert or feta made in Europe," said Murphy, standing over a table spread with cheese samples in the farm store Tuesday. "There's no difference."
The Democratic senator visited the 180-acre sheep and dairy farm to call attention to efforts by the European Union to ban the use of traditional European names for cheeses made in the United States, including Parmesan, feta and Muenster.
Murphy, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on European Affairs, is urging U.S. trade representatives negotiating a free trade agreement with the European Union to refuse the ban, saying the names have been in common usage for generations.
Under the European Union's proposed rules, only cheese made in Parma, Italy, could bear the name "Parmesan," and no cheese could be called "feta" unless it came from Greece - even though the name refers to the specific cheese cultures and brine-cured process used to make it, rather than a particular Greek region.
"It's really important we protect the basic names consumers have come to know," said Murphy, before tasting Beaver Brook's feta and other cheeses made there.
Both Murphy, D-Conn., and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., have joined bipartisan colleagues from across the country in signing a letter to the U.S. chief trade negotiator urging that he not agree to the name restrictions. The issue, Murphy said, "is not a made-up trade fight," but one that led to a recent agreement between Canada and the European Union that caused the relabeling of Canadian-made feta as "feta style."
Sankow said the restriction would dampen sales of her products and those of other U.S. cheese makers. At farmers markets where she sells her cheeses, she'd have to educate and re-educate customers about the new names, and many would wrongly assume the product is inferior to European products bearing the original names with geographic origins.
"People buy the cheeses they know," she said. "If I try to sell feta under a different name, we would all struggle. We should be free to name our cheeses what we want. This is definitely anti-competitive."
Murphy said the trade talks are likely to continue for the rest of this year, and no agreement is expected to be signed until 2015. Raising objections to the name ban early in the process is important to ensuring it's not in the final agreement, he said. If the ban were enacted, producers who continued to use the names could face penalties, he added.
In Connecticut, Murphy noted, cheese-making businesses range from small artisanal producers like Beaver Brook to large companies such as Calabro in East Haven, which makes ricotta, Parmesan and Romano; and the Agri-Mark dairy cooperative, which makes Muenster.
"You're talking about a serious chunk of Connecticut cheesemakers" who would be affected, he said.
It would also hurt dairy farmers like Jim Jacquier, owner of 2,000-acre Laurel Brook Farm in East Canaan. He supplies milk from his 1,000-cow herd to the Cabot cooperative, which is part of Agri-Mark. Exports from dairy farms throughout New England have been growing in recent years, he said, and he believes their success sparked the European Union's push for a name ban that would sow confusion among consumers about their products.
"We're becoming very good competitors, so they're trying to add some confusion," he said. "But it's a world market now."