WASHINGTON -- Hang on to your brats, America.
Europeans negotiating a free trade deal with the United States have been angling to reserve names like "feta" and "parmesan" only for cheese made in Europe. They also want to mandate that beer names like "Oktoberfest" and meat monikers like, yes, "bratwurst" be allowed only on European-produced beer and sausages.
But Sen. Claire McCaskill says that's political baloney. The Missouri Democrat has joined with other lawmakers, including Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., in pressing U.S. trade negotiators to tell the Europeans that America won't accept such naming restrictions.
"We urge you to make clear to your EU counterparts that the United States will reject any proposal . . . that would in any way restrict the ability of U.S. producers to use common meat names, such as bologna or black forest ham," McCaskill and other lawmakers wrote Friday in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, who has been negotiating the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union.
McCaskill and Blunt both signed onto a similar letter last month protesting European efforts to control certain cheese names. They say the European demands are a protectionist move that would seriously hurt America's dairy and meat industries, particularly smaller businesses that make specialty products, such as bratwurst, kielbasa, and wiener schnitzel.
The April 4 missive was spearheaded by Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat from Wisconsin, where beer, brats, and cheese are a veritable Holy Trinity. "I consider this an attack on our proud traditions," Baldwin said, "and I am standing up for Wisconsin cheese, brats and beer."
But the fight is about more than American traditions.
Jaime Castaneda, who handles trade policy for the U.S. Dairy Export Council, said such restrictions would be a major economic blow to American companies. "What you call a food is a very big deal," he said. "And for consumers, restricting these names means less choice, more confusion, and very likely higher prices for some of their favorite foods."
The naming restrictions, known as geographic indications or GIs, have already been included in recent EU agreements with Canada and other countries. For example, feta cheese sold in Canada cannot be called "feta" unless it is from Greece.
An aide to the U.S. trade representative said the agency received the letters and would respond directly to the senators. The aide declined to elaborate. The agency said last month that conversations are in the early stages but that the U.S. and E.U. have "different points of view" on the naming restrictions.
Europeans haven't made their demands public. European Commission spokesman Roger Waite has only said the naming "is an important issue for the EU."
The EU has led the way in protecting names associated with region-specific products. For example, Cognac must come from the Cognac region of France, Roquefort cheese must be produced in Roquefort, and Parma ham must come from Parma, Italy.
"The protection of geographical indications matters economically and culturally," the European Commission website says. "They can create value for local communities through products that are deeply rooted in tradition, culture and geography. They support rural development and promote new job opportunities in production, processing and other related services."
But meat and dairy producers in Missouri see it differently.
"Typical Europeans," quipped Dave Drennan, executive director of the Missouri Dairy Association. "They try to dream up these things to keep U.S. products out of their markets."
He said Europeans want these restrictions to give them "an edge" in global trade even though American producers are more efficient.
Randy Alewel, CEO of Alewel's Country Meats in Warrensberg, said the word "brat" holds nearly the same cherished place in American culture as hot dogs. And he can't imagine that Americans would like the idea of ceding it to the Europeans.
"I think (such restrictions) would be ignored," said Alewel, whose third-generation company makes a wide array of brats, bacon, and other meats. If enforced, he said, the naming rules would confuse the public and require meat producers to launch a marketing strategy to reintroduce brats and other products under new names.
What would he do if he had to call his bratwursts something else?
"I guess . . . we'd just have to call it a fresh sausage," he said.
By Donovan Slack and Deirdre Shesgreen, Gannett Washington Bureau