THE European Union has protections in place for approximately 1,000 food-related geographical indications (GIs), while the U.S. uses trademarks to protect products.
In the real world, though, both have serious trade implications that will need to be worked out during EU-U.S. trade negotiations.
In general, GIs are intended to designate product quality, highlight brand identity and preserve cultural traditions. Examples of well-known GIs include Champagne grapes, Florida oranges, Prosciutto di Parma, Parmigiano Reggiano (parmesan cheese), Idaho potatoes and many others.
Craig Thorn, partner at trade consulting firm DTB Associates, acknowledged that GIs can add value to products and can act as a quality guarantee to consumers; however, a top goal is to protect names from misuse and ensure that consumers aren't misled.
"Some approaches to geographical indications protection unnecessarily create trade disruptions," he said.
In South Korea, non-European cheese producers can no longer sell asiago, feta, fontina or gorgonzola — at least not under those names. The restriction is due solely to the EU's demands under its free trade agreement with Korea. This also has the effect of limiting market opportunities for U.S. producers negotiated in the U.S.'s trade agreement with Korea.
This could be just the tip of the iceberg, groups warned, especially as the implementation of U.S. trade deals with Colombia, Peru and others go into effect.
If the EU were to succeed in monopolizing many terms globally that it considers to be uniquely European, consumers, producers and manufacturers all around the world could lose the ability to buy or make many quality foods that consumers can easily recognize.
In fact, in the U.S. alone, the U.S. Dairy Export Council estimates that such a restriction could affect production of roughly $4.2 billion worth of cheese, or an estimated 14% of U.S. cheese production, by companies of all sizes.
The U.S. is a major dairy exporter, but less than 2% of exports went to the EU.
Sue Taylor, vice president of policy and procurement for Leprino Foods and chair of the export council's trade committee, said the dairy industry strongly rejects any suggestion that the U.S. relinquish long-standing common names — a move that has blocked labeled products in markets around the world.
Right now, Europe's proposal for GIs in the Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the U.S. is that generic terms in the U.S. be protected as EU intellectual property: port, madeira, feta, parmesan, etc. This could offer huge gains for the EU if, for example, all cheese labeled as feta has to be produced in Greece.
Another request is that if there is a conflict between a U.S. trademark and an EU GI, the trademark would be cancelled. The EU also wants recognition for all existing EU GIs and automatic recognition for all future GIs.
In the TTIP negotiations, David Biltchik, consultant to the Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma, said, "Europe wants fair treatment for geographical indicators — for both yours and ours. We think it's been proven to provide important economic benefits by protecting something that cannot be moved away to another region."
He cited Napa Valley wines and Idaho potatoes as examples of the successful use of GIs.
Registering GIs that have become common names is the crux of the issue.
Thorn noted that he represents groups that don't contest the rights of producers to register GIs as long as they take into account commercial realities. Many common food names are incorporated into valuable company brand names, and rebranding would be extremely expensive.
The Consortium for Common Food Names is hoping to help foster the adoption of an appropriate model for protecting both legitimate GIs and common food names.
It noted that products from many parts of the world — such as Washington state apples, Idaho potatoes, Valle de Colchagua wine from Chile or Thai jasmine rice — may also benefit from similar protection.
"The consortium supports these types of terms as a tool to promote distinctive products and as a legitimate form of intellectual property that is worthy of protection. We only object to efforts to use geographical indications or certification marks to limit the use of names that have become common and generic," the group noted on its website.
Thorn, who's involved in the consortium, said he thinks the goal of U.S. negotiators in the TTIP talks is to keep GI negotiations separate and allow for bilateral discussion specifically on GIs. He explained that the final agreement on GIs has to be "self-balancing," where both sides get something of interest.
If rolled into the overall TTIP negotiations, he fears that GIs could become a trade-off against another issue.
"Whether the issue is addressed within the negotiations or separately, the only way forward for Europeans is to reset their goals and address some of the U.S. concerns," Thorn said.
He added that the U.S. trademark system has its faults, and he is familiar with some of the complaints the EU has expressed in that registration process, but he reiterated that the goal needs to be preventing trade disruptions on both sides of the ocean.