A Publication of WTVP

Recently, the House Agriculture Committee held a hearing on the issue of geographical indications. While this term might not be a household phrase, it’s certainly something that could affect households around the country if proposals being advocated by the European Union are adopted during World Trade Organization (WTO) talks.

A geographical indication is a term used to indicate the regional origin of particular goods or services, such as "parmesan" cheese, which originally derived its name from Parma, Italy. If the EU has its way, many American companies like Kraft, which have spent millions of dollars over nearly 60 years making parmesan cheese a household name, would be faced with the prospect of selling its product under a new and unfamiliar name.

The European Union wants to change the system to one in which a country could arbitrarily select a geographical indication and claim it for its own, thereby denying a long-time user of such names the ability to market and sell its products. These proposals aren’t rules-based and offer little or no protection to producers and manufacturers of such products.

In addition to parmesan cheese, some of the generic terms that could be affected include balsamic vinegar and salami. Even bologna is one of the generic terms the EU may want to claim for its own exclusive use. If these efforts are successful, they’ll severely impact our domestic producers and consumers while simultaneously undermining valuable intellectual property rights.

Under the current system, many countries, including the United States, offer protection for some geographical indications under a rules-based method. America has a trademark system that’s open and includes fair treatment and enforcement mechanisms. For example, European Union products that are registered geographic indications in the U.S. include Roquefort (for cheese from France) and Swiss (for chocolate from Switzerland). While other terms that haven’t been protected have become generic in use in the U.S.-like parmesan cheese, cheddar cheese, and champagne.

But American products aren’t afforded those same standards by the EU. According to testimony received by the House Agriculture Committee, the U.S. may be facing demands to give away our WTO entitlements for nothing. It seems U.S. produce like Florida citrus, Idaho potatoes, and Virginia ham are facing deliberate discrimination in the EU, as is evidenced by the fact that not one U.S. geographical indication is currently protected or even allowed to register in the EU under its Agriculture Regulations.

By deeming that certain products belong exclusively to Europe, the EU has taken a position that could ultimately take away well-established names from companies around the world. This is just wrong, and I’ll be working to make sure this doesn’t happen. IBI