Geographical Indications     Print

European Names for Food and Drink Cause a New Transatlantic Dispute

A divisive new trade conflict between the United States and the European Union is becoming increasingly important in the latest round of world trade negotiations, the Doha Development Round. The emotive, but previously obscure dispute is over "Geographical Indications (GI)," the place names such as Champagne or Cheddar that designate the areas in which certain sought-after foods and drinks are produced, and that give them their distinctive appeal.

The dispute reflects longstanding grievances among European agricultural producers, who complain that competitors in other countries - above all the United States - have effectively stolen many of these names and applied them to their own products. The wine trade is especially rife with this practice, with European names such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, Chablis, Champagne and Port used freely by producers in other countries to promote the sale of wines produced thousands of miles away from the regions that the names designate. The United States also has complaints against other countries, for example over the abuse of the name Bourbon to market imitation American whiskeys.

Several new factors are now bringing the dispute to a head. There is already limited protection for the geographical names under the World Trade Organization agreement on intellectual property (TRIPS). The hope, however, is to negotiate stronger protection in the Doha Round by September 2003. The European Union wants not only to increase existing protection for wines and liquors under the agreement, but also to extend similar international protection to other drinks and food products, such as Parmesan cheese and Bayonne ham, which are already protected in the European Union. Its aim is to create an international register of names that would be presumed to be protected in future in all countries adhering to the TRIPS agreement, that is most of the world.

In addition, the European Union is raising the issue in another part of the Doha Round, the broader negotiations on agriculture that are likely to decide the success or failure of the whole venture. The European Union wants to establish a "short list" of well-known European names that have been already usurped by producers in other countries, and reach an agreement on returning them to the original producers.

The United States contests this approach, and argues that existing measures to protect such products are sufficient. In the United States, for instance, Roquefort and Stilton cheese are already protected under U.S. trademark law. Washington says the European Union is not entitled to raise GIs in the agricultural talks and that they should be discussed in the TRIPS negotiations or in bilateral talks.

The United States insists that some names, such as Vermouth, have become "generic" and that sole entitlement to their use cannot be given back to the original producers. It has conceded that U.S. producers might relinquish "semi-generic" names, such as Champagne, but it wants something in return. The quid pro quo would be for the Europeans to agree to the mutual acceptance of European and American wine-making practices. The United States says that the European Union's failure to recognize U.S. practices is keeping American wines and liquors out of its market.

The United States also opposes the European Union's attempts to establish a register of names in the TRIPS negotiations, which it says would be unnecessarily cumbersome and bureaucratic.

Some angry European producers say they should not have to pay a price to get their own names back. But a bargain would in a way suit the European negotiators. If they are to make concessions on agriculture in the negotiations - and they will have to if the negotiations are to succeed - they need to demonstrate that they have achieved equally important concessions from their negotiating partners. The recapture of prestigious names such as Champagne and Port would be a significant negotiating prize that could help justify concessions in other areas to European public opinion.

The Europeans are warning that if they do not get their way, the entire agricultural negotiations could be endangered. They point out that there can be no overall agreement until agreement has been reached on every single item under negotiations. If there were no agreement on agriculture, the entire Doha Round would be jeopardized.