American cheese, indeed: examining the trademarks

A couple of weeks ago my wife and I were dining out. Neither of us can remember the specifics (life with a newborn will do this to you), but my hazy recollection is that one of us ordered something with cheese, and following the standard interrogatory about the type of cheese, it occurred to me: “American” is the most appropriately named cheese.

Don’t get me wrong. I love America. But you really have to be living far from our popular culture to think that “American” suggests or describes something sophisticated, deep, or complex. No. Manufactured, highly-processed, thin, and bland pretty much nails it in both cases.

Now, I have always assumed that “American” as applied to cheese is generic in the trademark sense — that it identifies a category or “species” of cheese, if you will. So far, I cannot find a proprietary claim to AMERICAN as applied to cheese, but there are a few interesting findings. First, Cargill owns a registration for AMERICAN for use in connection with a “rennet enzyme preparation used in the manufacture of cheese,” claiming priority to 1959. If you don’t know what rennet is, see here, but beware, it is not for the faint of heart. (Cargill’s use of this registered mark on this page does seem to leave open the question of whether this rennet product is intended for use in making American cheese, which could be problematic.)

Second, I have also discovered the American Cheese Society. I’m pretty sure that this outfit is the American [pause] Cheese Society, not the American Cheese [pause] Society. It does make a difference. The society’s vision statement does not really help the ambiguity: “ACS is the leader in promoting and supporting American cheeses.” (When they say, “American cheeses,” I think that they really mean “cheeses made in America.”) They’ve been around for almost thirty years and have only recently applied for registered trademark protection of their name.

As it turns out, there are fifty pages of U.S. federal government regulations regarding the production and naming of cheeses. I wish I were kidding. You can see the contents here, and a PDF is here if you’re having difficulty sleeping. The word “American” appears numerous times, and nearly each time in the following passage: “cheddar cheese, washed curd cheese, colby cheese, granular cheese, or any mixture of two or more of these may be designated as ‘American cheese.’”

The final nail in the coffin of AMERICAN being generic as applied to cheese is that the phrase “american cheese” is used in goods descriptions throughout the U.S. trademark register. Of these uses, the best is this: Aldi owns the registered trademark LYNDER for “american cheese substitutes.”

Really? I’d substitute any cheese for American cheese.

This post was written by Dan Kelly and originally published on Duets Blog. Follow Duets Blog on Twitter: @duetsblog.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/18/2012 - 10:18 am.

    How to tell?

    I believe it’s the only cheese characterized by the lack of flavor, rather than a distinct flavor. It’s more about texture than flavor.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/18/2012 - 11:00 am.

    Oxymoron

    That’s what the phrase ‘American Cheese’ is.

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