WTO rules on food names: geography retains importance

A little snippet of rather ambiguous, but darn interesting news came out this week from the World Trade Organisation and I’m rather surprised that it hasn’t been discussed more in the blogosphere.
If you follow world trade, you already know that there are lots of foodstuffs that are named for the region they’re produced in, ranging from Roquefort cheese (from Southern France) to Madeira wine (from the Portuguese island of Madeira). Ostensibly, if the product isn’t from that region, it shouldn’t bear that name or identifier. Or should it? What about Idaho Potatoes or Florida orange juice?

The question revolves around whether it’s the region of origin or whether regional product names evolve and change to be product descriptions and can therefore be used independently.
Sound simple? Consider this: A Canadian meat manufacturer owns the trademark on “Parma”, which means that Italy’s Parma ham makers have to rebrand their product for sale in Canada so as not to violate that existing trademark.
The ruling is sufficiently ambiguous that the BBC is reporting that both sides are claiming victory in this case brought to the WTO by the US and Australia.
What I find fascinating about this case — and it’s clear that a clarification will need to be issued by the WTO so we can figure out what they’re really talking about — is that it calls into question the meaning of brand. In foodstuffs (and alcohols) is it where something is made that’s important (region, factory, company) or the style of the thing?
Can I make Dijon mustard here in Colorado and sell it as “Rocky Mountain Dijon” to a delicatessen in Rome, for them to stock on their shelves for customers?
US trade representative Peter Allgeier is quoted as saying: “It’s a clear win for American farmers and food processors. For years, Europe effectively had a ‘Do Not Apply’ sign directed at foreign producers. We believe that, under WTO rules, US farmers, ranchers, and other food producers should have the same access to protection for ‘geographical indications’ as European food producers, and that the European system discriminated against us.”
So Seville orange producers are now — presumably — prohibited from selling their product in Japan as “Florida oranges”, just as I would, in fact, be prohibited by both WTO and European Union laws from selling “Rocky Mountain Dijon Mustard” in Italy.

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