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Sticks, Stone and Cheeses

April 4, 2014


Much of the focus of international trade negotiations in the 21st century addresses the regulation of products created by our minds – what’s known as intellectual property, things like software programs, movies, and trademarked brands. What’s become painfully obvious in recent years is that modern notions about intellectual property are being twisted to stifle the sales of some of the oldest things created by human hands: wine, meats, and cheeses.

The latest evidence of this effort is the push by European governments to dress up trade protectionism in the more fashionable form of geographic indications (GIs). GIs are a type of intellectual property designation intended to protect the use of certain names of foods produced in a particular region. A prominent example is Parmigiano Reggiano, a type of parmesan cheese produced in northern Italy. No food producer should be able to co-opt that specific name, just as no potato grower outside of Idaho has a right to sell “Idaho potatoes.” But that’s a far different matter than what is happening now, where generic names like parmesan are at risk of being pulled from the labels of foods where they’ve been featured for many years.

In fact, food makers in America and elsewhere have helped to popularize common food names with generations of consumers around the world. Now, European officials are trying to claw back those names for the exclusive use of their own companies. This is all the more galling considering that immigrant families played a major role in developing this global consumer demand, by introducing to new markets the products their families learned to make back in Europe. Without this work by American cheesemakers, the value of these common terms would be far lower, since they would be much less familiar to global consumers.

Already, trade deals the EU has created with important export markets like South Korea and Canada have specific carve-outs for European-made cheese products that prevent the same American-made products from being sold in those countries. And as the U.S. government proceeds with a massive trade deal with the EU, the battle over geographic indicators is going to be front and center.

Fortunately, NMPF has been able to work with other groups concerned about this precedent, especially the Consortium for Common Food Names (an independent organization founded by the U.S. Dairy Export Council), to point a spotlight on the ramifications of the GI issue. Last month, 55 U.S. Senators co-signed a letter to the Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Trade Representative’s office, indicating their indignation with the EU’s negotiating tactic to protect common food names. The letter underscored strong U.S. political support for rejecting any attempt by the EU to confiscate common food names. We believe it’s critical not only to be vigilant about attacks against our own market, but also to restore market access for our cheeses, including parmesan, feta and others, into the EU and all other export markets.

Despite protests from food producers beyond its borders, the EU has been emboldened by the pursuit of this patently self-serving strategy. The EU has not just granted the Greeks the sole right to sell “feta”; now, it is advancing an application by the Danes to create a geographic indication that would grant that nation exclusive rights to “havarti.” This, despite the fact that havarti does not apply to any geography in Denmark, and that the cheese already has an internationally-recognized Codex standard precisely so it can be made elsewhere in the world. In light of this trend, it’s not so surprising that a British court also ruled recently that the U.S. could no longer export “Greek Yogurt” to the United Kingdom, despite the fact that this term is not even on the EU’s own GI registry.

Trade liberalization is all about allowing the providers of goods and services to reach millions of consumers through the freer flow of their products. It enhances the ability of people in both developed and developing nations to enjoy products they may have never encountered before. For those who want cheeses from Italy, those products already state that fact on the label, just as cheeses made in the U.S. have similar designations. Removing the ability of American companies to use a specific common cheese name, however, is a far greater intervention, and an inappropriate one.

What the U.S. food industry wants – and this is bigger than just cheeses – is simply the opportunity to compete on a level playing field. It shouldn’t be stilted by Europe’s latest non-tariff trade barrier, masked as a crusade for the intellectual property rights of certain European countries. Freer trade should facilitate more choices, not less, which is why this fight over GI’s is not just a legal exercise, but an important defense of consumers’ rights around the world.