BRUSSELS — To Belgians, a proposed business rule smacked of bureaucratic overreach that would threaten a centuries-old craft and tarnish the country’s traditions.
The offense? A plan to regulate frites.
In the streets of Brussels, an array of shacks and stalls make frites, or frieten, much as they have for generations — by frying potato strips, and then frying them again to order. The snack is then placed in paper cones and often topped with a sauce.
But officials in the European Union this month proposed changes to the frites cooking process, including a suggestion that the potatoes first be blanched in hot water to avoid the formation of a chemical compound that may be linked to cancer.
(The officials made another Belgian culinary faux pas, referring in the proposal only to French fries.)
Fights over culinary traditions are common in Europe, where countries are fiercely protective of their gastronomical heritage, and the rule books are full of regional food and drink that are “protected.”
The European Union also has a role in deciding which products may use more generic names like milk and cream.
The rules cover thousands of foods and drinks — from arnaki Elassonas (Greek lamb) to Zázrivské vojky (Slovak cheese). To qualify for a protected name, products are usually required to be made in a specific place. As a result, cheese producers in northern England market a feta alternative as “fettle.”
Here are some of the more politically charged food disputes.
Champagne Sorbet: Sacrilege?
The dessert was meant to add a touch of distinction to Christmas dinners.
But the product, “Champagne sorbet” — produced by a Belgian company and sold in Germany at Aldi, a discount supermarket chain — was sacrilege for an august French industry.
The Comité Champagne, a trade association, sued Aldi for selling the frozen confection.
The dessert has “nothing left of what makes Champagne,” Richard Nieder, a lawyer for the association, told a Munich court three years ago.
Since then, the case has made its way to the continent’s highest court, the European Court of Justice. A verdict is expected July 20.
Aldi said it had stopped selling the product but declined to comment further. Galana, the Belgian company that makes the product, did not respond to a request for comment.
Vegan Food: It’s Not Butter
Plant-based meat and dairy substitutes often use the names of the animal-based products they purport to replace.
But in Germany, this has caused consternation.
Christian Schmidt, the German agriculture minister, has called for a ban on terms like “vegan currywurst,” a plant-based version of a popular and piquant pork sausage snack, arguing that they confuse consumers.
The Verband Sozialer Wettbewerb, a German advocacy group that promotes fair competition, is not fond of the practice either.
It sued TofuTown, a major German producer of dairy alternatives, for violating European rules by marketing “Soyatoo tofu butter” and “veggie cheese.”
This month, the European Court of Justice agreed with the German association.
Makers of coconut milk, peanut butter and cream soda, however, can rest easy: They are among the exceptions already listed in the bloc’s Official Journal.
Greek Feta vs. Wisconsin Cheese
Europe’s rules do not just affect producers in the region, but those in countries that want to trade with the bloc. China agreed this month to respect rules protecting the names of 100 European Union foods and drinks, including feta cheese from Greece.
No such agreement is on the horizon with the United States. Much of the opposition comes from American producers in states like Wisconsin, who insist that their cheeses are just as good as those made by their European counterparts, and just as deserving of the name.
Cheese politics have at times even soured trade talks between the United States and the European Union. During those talks, Paul D. Ryan, the Republican House speaker and a Wisconsinite, insisted that producers in his state should be allowed to make feta and other cheeses “for generations to come.”
Manolis Kefalogiannis, a Greek lawmaker at the European Parliament, later said that the United States stance created the “risk of mass imports of counterfeit feta into the E.U.”
Sparing Gus, the Asparagus
In a triumph for Gus, locally grown Vale of Evesham asparagus from the west of England was awarded protected status in December.
But with Britain negotiating its exit from the European Union, Gus is emerging as a symbol of efforts by British food producers to maintain the European system of recognizing local produce.
In April, Gus traveled to Brussels to present a huge bundle of Vale of Evesham asparagus to the head chef of the European Parliament’s dining room, so lawmakers from other countries could taste its particular qualities.
Sales of British goods with protected names amounted to more than €5 billion (about $5.6 billion) annually, according to the most recent figures available from the European Commission.
Now, some British producers are trying to preserve the boost that Europe’s protected food names system gives their business.
“Even cynics agree this is at least one good thing that has come out of the E.U.,” Anthea McIntyre, a British member of the European Parliament, said when Gus visited Brussels in April. “In my opinion the system is too good to be lost.”
Ingredients for Success
Fights over the names of foods and drinks are not the only issue: Their ingredients and appearance can cause controversy too.
The European authorities faced an outcry over regulations that apparently banned bendy bananas (They didn’t. Well, not really).
More complicated is a case involving Parma and San Daniele ham, and the process of making those well-known products.
Italian investigators were examining whether breeders had used pig sperm from unauthorized sources. The practice may violate European Union rules that require that Parma ham be made from pigs from specified Italian regions.