By Stewart Truelsen
Maybe the American restaurants that changed french fries on the menu to “freedom fries” went too far. The European Union has a list of almost 40 food names that it wants the World Trade Organization (WTO) to protect from American and other use. French fries aren’t on the list but stilton and mozzarella cheese are. For now, the list covers mostly wine and spirits like champagne, port and cognac.
These names are referred to in trade circles as geographic indicators or indications. The EU objects to the names being used on products that do not come from the towns or regions for which they were named. In other words, American consumers would no longer be able to buy Kraft parmesan cheese, unless perhaps Kraft opens a cheese plant in Parma, Italy. If the EU is successful, who knows what could happen next? Parma, Ohio, a city south of Cleveland, might have to be renamed.
Geographic indications are probably a red herring – not the little fish that also comes from Europe – but a ploy that is meant to distract and confuse. Rep. Charles Stenholm (D-Texas) says, “it is very important for the U.S. agricultural community to fully understand the implications of Europe’s attempt to enhance protections for geographical indications. It is equally important for Europe to understand that we do not intend to allow the issue to distract us from the real work of the WTO agricultural negotiation-export competition, domestic support and market access.”
The EU, however, appears to be serious about this. EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy told a Brussels audience that geographic indicators could be an alternative to export subsidies. “If we do not have financial support for our exports, you might well say, what support could we still count on when necessary?” He then supplied the answer. “I am convinced that the future of European agriculture lies not in quantity of exports but quality, the quality of the European trademark. That is why we are fighting to stop appropriation of the image of our products and improve protection.”
Lamy outlined a threefold plan by the EU. The first objective is to get better protection for wines and spirits. The second is to extend existing protection to other food products, and the third is the “recuperation” of some of the protected names that have been appropriated. “You might say that this is a new type of export aid that the EU is trying to develop,” he adds.
The real purpose of this export aid seems to be to drive up prices to consumers and subsidize European producers. While the proposal has a certain snob appeal to it, it only seems to work in one direction. The EU is refusing to recognize Idaho potatoes as distinctive.
The U.S. response on geographical indicators is to point to the trademark system that this country and others rely on. The GI proposal, as it is called, is a whole different approach. Europe might as well get used to the fact that many product names like feta cheese, bologna and dijon mustard left port long ago and won’t be returning.
Stewart Truelsen is director of broadcast services for American Farm Bureau Federation.