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Mulhern Grills Head of WIPO on Outcome of May Conference on Food Names

July 12, 2015

As a follow-up to a contentious diplomatic conference that expanded geographical indications protections for European countries, NMPF President and CEO Jim Mulhern personally pressed the head of the agency that convened the conference on both its outcome and the process used to reach that outcome.

Treaty changes approved at the May conference held by the World Intellectual Property Organization, or WIPO, risk seriously impairing the ability of companies worldwide to use generic food terms in export markets. Among those affected are U.S. dairy producers and processors relying on numerous generic cheese names.

“This was a very unfortunate missed opportunity to actually help achieve a global consensus document on GIs, rather than simply create a divisive process that disregarded the concerns of many members,” said Mulhern. “We view it as entirely unjustified for individual countries to be permitted to ban competition by monopolizing terms for types of food that long ago entered into common usage in many countries.”

Mulhern criticized a closed process used during the two-week conference to deny meaningful participation by a majority of WIPO members, including the United States.

“For the past 25 years, WIPO members have been able to fully participate in negotiations on international treaties, even if they were not members of that particular treaty,” Mulhern said. “For the May conference, this precedent was tossed aside so that the concerns of the United States and other active WIPO members could be side-lined.” As a result, Mulhern added, the treaty signed at the meeting “cannot be held up as a legitimate international agreement.”

Mulhern led the meeting with WIPO Director General Francis Gurry in Washington in mid-June. Also participating were representatives of the International Dairy Foods Association, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the American Farm Bureau Federation and several other trade associations concerned with the issue of geographical indications.