New war of words over food and drink ‘geographical indications’
By Brian Beary in Washington | Monday 18 June 2012
A long-standing divergence of views between the EU and the US over the ability to protect foods and beverages like feta cheese and champagne using geographical indications (ie reserving the use of the term to producers from that region) is bubbling up into a war of words. The European Commission issued a statement, on 15 June, protesting what it says are false claims being made by the new US-based Consortium for Common Food Names, made up of US farmers, producers, consumers and retailers. The consortium has recently launched a campaign in which it complains that the EU is being unreasonably liberal in its use of this form of protection.
Why raise the issue now? Because there is growing unease in Washington over the Commission’s effort to enshrine geographical indications in bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs) it is negotiating with non-EU countries. For example, the consortium is unhappy that the EU-South Korea FTA reserves the right to use the ‘feta cheese’ indication for Greek producers, given that the US is a significant producer of feta cheese. A spokesperson for the consorium told
Europolitics that with talks for a multilateral agreement at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) stalled for so long, Washington feels it has no other venue in which to raise the issue and was thus voicing its concerns directly to the EU.
In response, the Commission has firmly defended its policy, noting that feta cheese obtained protection “further to evidence provided that more than half of the EU population considered ‘feta’ to be a Greek product”. The Commission accused the consortium of “free riding on the reputation of European culinary heritage foods,” adding “would American consumers like to buy for example Vermont cheddar cheese made in Germany”? The Commission stressed that the EU did not demand geographical indication protection for all cheeses and accepted the generic use of products, including mozzarella, brie, gouda, edam and cheddar.
However, the consortium claims that the EU is trying to “monopolise” many such terms and that this “severely undermines the marketability of foods produced outside the protected region” and also “impairs the value of tariff concessions” obtained in the WTO and bilateral FTAs. “We are not anti-geographical indications per se but you must preserve the right of other countries to use generic names,” said consortium spokesperson Shawna Morris. She added that “our campaign is focusing on the EU’s bilateral FTAs because that is where the action is now”. Asked if the US administration was backing the campaign, Morris said that US Trade Representative (USTR) had done “a good job” in highlighting the issue but that industry and consumers needed to take action too.
Should the dispute escalate, it will surely not augur well for the launch of EU-US FTA negotiations, something many in the business community have been calling for to provide a boost to the flagging transatlantic economy. The Commission and USTR are due to give their initial assessment at the end of June of whether to launch such talks when they present their interim report on the High-Level Working Group on Jobs and Growth, which was established at the November 2011 EU-US summit. n
While EU-US FTA talks have failed to get off the ground so far, the EU is in the midst negotiating FTAs with a wide range of other countries and regions. These include India, Singapore, Malaysia, the ASEAN South-East Asia trading bloc, Canada, Central America, the Mercosur South America bloc, numerous countries in the Maghreb and Middle East and Ukraine. The EU-South Korea FTA entered into force on 1 July 2011. The US, by contrast, has been much less active in pursuing bilateral FTAs under US President Barack Obama, who has effectively called a time-out since taking office in 2009. However, in 2011, Obama did succeed in getting Congress to ratify bilateral FTAs which his predecessor, George W Bush, had concluded with South Korea, Panama and Colombia.