What’s a Geographic Indication? 

Geographic Indications (GI) promote and protect foods made in a particular place with specific production methods. You might have noticed a Geographic Indication on iconic European cheeses, like a Roquefort or a Pecorino Romano. Since 1992, the European Union has implemented rules for to protect products from all member countries.

Products registered under a geographic indication may be marked with a special logo—something shoppers can look for to ensure they are choosing an authentic product. 

The United States does not have this kind framework of protection.

Why do Geographic Indications exist? 

These labels are set up to:

  • Protect the reputation of regional foods
  • Demonstrate authenticity, and help producers obtain a premium price for their authentic products
  • Promote rural and agricultural activities
  • Eliminate misleading labels and confusion, so that shoppers won’t purchase inauthentic products (which may be of inferior quality or different flavor)

What is the difference between Protected Geographic Indication (PGI) and Protected Designation of Origin?

Europe has two kinds of Geographic Indications: Protected geographic indication (PGI), and protection designation of origin (PDO). 

PGI indicates only a geographic origin. (Example: Havarti PGI must be made in Denmark)

PDO is stricter. It indicates a geographic origin as well as specific processing methods. (Example: Comté PDO must be made from unpasteurized milk from Montbéliarde and French Simmental cows in the Comté region of the Jura Mountains in France and hand-made by artisans, then cave-aged.)

There is a third type of indication for cheese: traditional specialty guaranteed (TSG). There is no geographic component for a TSG label. It is based on production methods. 

In Switzerland and the United Kingdom (non-European Union countries) there are similar designations for traditional cheeses. 

Misleading Labels and Names

Sometimes, European names are used on cheeses that are produced in the United States and elsewhere. Have you ever seen a “Parmesan Reggiano” cheese, instead of a Parmigiano Reggiano PDO? Using the name of a recognized European product on a product made somewhere else is wrong. It steals from the rural producers who made the cheese, and it misleads shoppers.

This remains true even when the country of production is listed in the fine print. When non-European producers use names of recognizable cheeses, they are purposely misleading consumers in order to profit off the aura of authenticity of those names. This can hurt the smaller producers who have no way of competing in the international market.

Honoring U.S. Cheesemakers

Protected product names do not have to be a fight between European and U.S. cheese  producers. There are fantastic cheeses being produced across the United States, and they are worth celebrating in their own right. Using European names for American-made products takes away from the originality and pride that distinguishes U.S. cheesemakers.

Why is this an issue right now?

For the past 30 years, large, industrial producers have appropriated the names of European cheeses for the American market, and now claim that these names are generic and therefore should not be protected. At the Oldways Cheese Coalition, we believe that consumers understand that names like Parmigiano Reggiano or Gruyère belong to products made in Europe.

Cheese producers are eager to sell their cheeses in the global market, especially in Latin America and Asia where demand for traditional cheese is growing. Hoping that cheese lovers around the world will fall in love European products, the European Union has spent the past 10 years negotiating trade agreements that protect geographic indications on their cheeses sold in Canada, Latin America, some Asian countries, and Australia.

Industrial cheese producers in the U.S. claim this gives an unfair advantage to European cheeses. Those producers have urged the U.S. government to impose extra tariffs on European products. The Oldways Cheese Coalition disagrees with these tactics, especially when these lobbyists and special interest groups pretend to speak on behalf of small domestic cheese producers, without consulting with them or representing their interests. 

For the past 10 years, the Oldways Cheese Coalition has engaged with traditional producers around the world and within the United States. The Coalition creates educational materials and campaigns to reach out consumers, and seeks to support traditional cheesemakers everywhere.

Carlos, Oldways Cheese Coalition, Program Manager


Steven Damiani
For the old timers like me I have a question...Exactly when did the European Consortiums switch from the term DOP to PDO?
Hi Steven, thanks for your comment! They actually mean the same thing. When nations like France and Italy became part of the EU, most of the terminologies that existed were simplified to “protected designation of origin,” or PDO. However, since that is an English phrase, it translates differently in other languages. In Italy they say ‘denominazione di origine protetta,’ which is why it is sometimes called DOP.
Jennifer Shaw
I would like to learn to make cheese

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