Why is the work of the consortium so important at this time?

We’ve been troubled by the European Commission (EC) efforts on geographical indications (GIs) for some time, but the recent activity of the EC, particularly in its work on trade agreements with other countries, is alarming.

It has become a standard approach for the EC to try to restrict the use of some common food names within trade and economic negotiations. The EU has concluded a number of agreements throughout the Western Hemisphere and Asia in the past couple of years, and is currently engaged in free trade agreement (FTA) negotiations throughout those regions, as well. Just since 2011, the EU has put in place active FTAs with South Korea, Colombia, Peru and Central America. More recently, it has also concluded negotiations with Singapore and Canada. Current negotiating partners include Japan, Malaysia, Morocco, Thailand, the United States and Vietnam, as well as the Mercosur and Gulf Corporation Council (GCC) blocs of countries.

The EU is also pressing the nearly 30 countries with which it already has trade agreements in place to accept new geographical indication protections – a list that includes important economies such as Mexico, South Africa and Turkey. Finally, it is also engaged in geographical indication (GI) agreement discussions with additional countries such as China.

Prior to the launch of CCFN, there was not a unified way for people to voice objection to the over-reach that is a core part of the EC’s efforts in this area. The consortium provides a way for a variety of groups and interests around the world to come together in objecting to language that restricts the use of common names – but also to propose a roadmap for how to positively address this issue moving forward in a way that preserves both the rights of geographical indication holders and users of common names and terms.

Can you give some specific examples of how activity is recently increasing on this issue?

  • Korea: Non-European cheese producers can no longer sell asiago, feta, fontina or gorgonzola in Korea—at least not under those names. The restriction is due solely to the EU’s demands under its free trade agreement (FTA) with Korea.
  • Canada: In its FTA negotiations with the EU, Canada acquiesced to EU demands to impose similar restrictions on any new sales of asiago, feta, fontina, gorgonzola and munster in Canada, despite extensive generic use of those terms in the Canadian market and the harm this will likely impose on other trading partners.
  • Costa Rica: Costa Rica has announced a decision (pending further legal review) to restrict the use of parmesan and provolone to only Italian producers, despite long-standing use of those terms in Costa Rica, as well as elsewhere around the world.

In other cases and other countries a more measured approach is being taken, demonstrating that a reasonable path forward on these issues is possible.  For instance:

  • El Salvador has approved a GI for “Parmigiano Reggiano” but also clearly stated that “parmesan” is generic.
  • Colombia has agreed to protect several compound GIs of importance to the EU but to also clearly articulate that the specific generic portions of those terms (brie, camembert, emmental, provolone) remain in free usage.
  • Singapore has insisted on the importance of subjecting GIs to the same sort of rigorous and objective evaluation process that country regularly conducts for trademarks.

Despite these positive signs, it is not clear whether common sense or extremism will prevail in most markets moving forward.

The European Commission is pursuing a multi-pronged international effort on common names:

  • It is pressing to include geographical indication provisions in ongoing trade talks with the United States, a move that threatens to bring naming restrictions to the U.S. market.
  • It is working with China to encourage development of a geographical indications system that aligns with EU views and to build upon the 2012 “10 for 10” deal under which the two nations agreed to honor 10 of each of their geographical indications.
  • It is working to influence Japan’s consideration of a new geographical indication system and pursue market restrictions for common names through EU-Japan FTA negotiations.
  • It inserted naming provisions into FTAs with Central America, Colombia and Peru, and has used those to monopolize several common names in each market.
  • Perhaps most shocking, it is processing applications in the EU to provide geographical indication protection to two cheeses (danbo and havarti) that have long had Codex standardized names.

Who is most impacted by this issue?

This issue could potentially force thousands of food producers around the globe to face re-labeling and re-branding of their food products, a huge economic price to pay. On top of that, these producers face the challenge of delivering the message that their products are of the same quality as before. But consumers also will no longer recognize familiar products and will be faced with a much more limited range of options of the most commonly known food types.

So this is an issue that restricts choice in the marketplace, all while confusing consumers who have grown to love these products.

Can you give me an example of a few names that are under significant threat?

Actions by the European Commission and related European court rulings put many common names at direct risk – such popular cheese names as feta, brie, gorgonzola, provolone, parmesan, munster and havarti, for example, as well as many others. The recent steps taken by the EC to permit the advancement of multiple geographical indication applications for cheeses that have international Codex standards (“danbo” and “havarti”) call into potential question the safety of all other internationally standardized cheeses, which include names as commonplace as mozzarella and cheddar.

The threat also persists for other food categories, such as for meat names like prosciutto, salami and bologna, and for produce such as Valencia oranges.

And the wine industry is very familiar with this problem. Third-country winemakers exporting to the EU can no longer include on their labels such common words as “noble”, “classic”, “cream”, “superior”, “vintage”, “fine”, “ruby”, “chateau” and “clos” unless they engage in a complex application process that is subject to potential objection by EU Member States. There are now 290 such terms that are protected and each year the list grows larger. (Most recently, the EU has moved to expand these limits on additional food-related terms to products outside the wine arena.) Wine industry organizations outside the EU have been working to combat this sort of activity for many years. Tom LaFaille from the U.S.-based Wine Institute, says, “Other sectors are right to be concerned about how the EU’s approach will ultimately impact them as well.”

What kind of economic impact could we be talking about in the restriction of common names?

Many of these products are made in significant volumes around the world, so between the prospect of re-labeling, plus the loss in sales when consumers don’t recognize their favorite foods, the price tag for such changes could easily reach billions of dollars worldwide.

In the United States alone, the U.S. Dairy Export Council has estimated that the top cheeses that could be impacted represent at least 14% of U.S. cheese production, valued at $4.2 billion a year.

Are you trying to get existing geographical indications revoked? Prevent new geographical indications from being registered?

No. The consortium supports proper geographical indications – names associated with specialized foods from regions throughout the world. But we believe the guidelines should be clearer and more consistent. We seek to foster the adoption of an appropriate model for protecting both legitimate geographical indications and common food names to help create a reasonable, common-ground approach to this issue.

In fact, products from other 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.

Is this the same issue as we’ve seen with wines and spirits, like “Champagne” and “Chablis”?

In some respects, it is. We have watched as the EC has imposed geographical indication protections on one trading partner after another to prevent those countries from using terms such as Champagne, which had long been in common usage around the world.

We are drawing a line in the sand to insist that enough is enough. Legitimate protection for geographical indications has an important role to play in order to avoid misleading consumers and to create the basis for fair competition. But it is just as important to set an appropriate scope of protection that maintains the rights of many more food producers to continue to use names and terms that long ago entered into the public domain. The consortium is advocating an approach that achieves both these core goals.