July 2003 Edition
A Cheese by any Other Name

by Patricia Nicholson

There’s a skirmish heating up over a geographical issue - but it’s not about geographical boundaries so much as geographical names.

Champagne is made in Champagne, France. Otherwise it’s called a sparkling wine. Likewise, scotch whisky comes from Scotland. Such protected names, known as Geographical Indications, or GIs, are recognized by the World Trade Organization (WTO) for wines and spirits. But some areas of the world would like to see GI protection extended to food products that have strong regional associations. Names such as black forest ham and parmesan cheese might then be limited to producers in the corresponding regions of Germany and Italy.

The European Union (EU) and several other countries support the extension of GI protection to foods. A system of food GIs is recognized within the European Union, and the EU would like to make it possible to register these GIs in other countries. That would protect these indications from illegitimate use even when there is no consumer deception involved and even when the product is clearly labelled as a Canadian version.

In other regions - including Canada - where homegrown versions of products named black forest ham and parmesan cheese are made and sold, such regulations would not be welcomed.

This argument could heat up in September, at the WTO’s Fifth Ministerial Conference in Cancun, Mexico.

A lot of the trouble stems from two different interpretations of an earlier WTO meeting. In November 2001, the Ministerial Conference in Doha, Qatar resulted in a declaration intended to address the problems that developing countries have in implementing trade agreements.

"Basically there is a political disagreement as so whether in Doha there was an agreement to negotiate on this or not," says Philippe Musquar, Counselor for Economic and Commercial Affairs at the Delegation of the EU Commission to Canada. "There is a group of countries — including Canada, the U.S., Argentina, Australia, Chile — which are adamantly against extension [of GI protection to food products], and consider it a non-starter: that there is no obligation whatsoever to even start discussions about this."

The other group, however, sees a clear mandate to negotiate the extension of GIs to foods and even other products such as carpets or saris. In addition to the EU, those arguing for negotiations on this issue include Cuba, Iceland, India, Jamaica, Kenya, Pakistan, Switzerland, Thailand and Turkey, among others.

As hard as some groups are pushing to get this issue onto the agenda at Cancun, "there’s going to be tremendous push-back," says Ted Menzies, president of the Canadian Agri-Food Trade Alliance (CAFTA).

"It appears to be very much of a protectionist way of involving another issue in trade that has nothing to do with the Doha Declaration," he says. "The Doha Declaration is saying that we need to look at ways to further trade liberalization and to make product move around the world, and this is, by all indications, a way to slow down."

But the countries that support extended GIs are unlikely to drop the issue, even if they are unsuccessful in Cancun.

"Maybe it’s just their way of notifying other countries that we may not discuss it this time, but we’ll sure want to discuss it next time," Menzies says.

Anyone expecting a clear answer on this issue to come out of the Cancun meeting in September is going to be disappointed. As far as extending GIs is concerned, the European Commission’s goal for Cancun is to upgrade the status of this issue from a topic of discussion to a subject for negotiation, which is an important distinction.

"Once you have decided that it’s really a subject for negotiation, then basically you have made it an element of the final package of the Doha Development Agenda of the WTO round. And it improves the bargaining situation of the countries requesting to reach some results in this area because once it becomes a negotiating topic we can sort of make results in other areas subject to progress in this area," Musquar says. "And of course, once you have also admitted that it is a negotiating issue, you have also somehow endorsed at least the legitimacy of the issue — which countries like Canada, Argentina, Australia are still not willing to do."

Indeed, Canada has no intention of negotiating food GIs at the Cancun meeting.

"We have been holding discussions and we will see where this goes, but we’re not at the stage where we’re actually holding formal negotiations on this," says Andr√© Lemay, a spokesperson for Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

Lemay says the Canadian position is that the issue is already sufficiently addressed in the WTO’s existing agreement on trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights, known as TRIPS.

"In other words, we don’t have anybody going out there fraudulently using names or place names or geographic indications to lure the consumer into thinking that what they’re buying is parmesan cheese that comes directly from Parma," he says. But the issue of shoppers misinterpreting food labels has been raised. "That’s one of the arguments that the EU is using. And we’re saying, you’ve got to be kidding."

If world producers were compelled to change the names of well-established products, the effects would be staggering.

"You’re changing marketing strategies and everything else. And one has to wonder again why this needs to happen," Lemay says. "What’s in this for Canada? … That’s the big point. That’s what we have to find out."

The crucial question, of course, is how the extension of GIs into food products would affect Canadian food producers. However, because it is so early in the development of this issue, no one really has a firm answer.

Musquar stresses that the objective of the EU is not to dispute every existing producer of these foods, but to create a legal framework that would provide suitable protection of GIs in the future.

The parameters for negotiation — if indeed negotiations are to take place — have not yet been worked out, much less the nuts-and-bolts of implementation and compliance. So there's no way to know what rules might eventually govern these products.

"I think that you might find some very innovative labelling," Menzies says with a laugh. "But let’s hope we don’t have to deal with that." ¬®

Keep up-to-date as this issue develops by visiting the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Web site at www.dfait-maeci.gc.ca and the WTO Web site at www.wto.org.

Geography on a Plate

Would Mont Saint-Benoit cheese taste the same if it came from somewhere other than Saint Benoit du Lac Abbey in Quebec? Is a P.E.I. potato the same if it isn't grown in the red dirt of its namesake island? Canada’s proud food traditions are no strangers to geographical names, if not geographical indications. Fine flavours dot the map from coast to coast:

B.C. Salmon

Nanaimo Bars

Alberta Beef

Red River Cereal

Montreal Bagels

Montreal Smoked Meat

French Canadian Pea Soup

Oka Cheese

Sir Laurier D’Arthabaska Cheese

Mont Saint-Benoit Cheese

Nova Scotia Blueberries

P.E.I. Potatoes

And don’t forget these great Canadians:

Bloody Caesar

Butter Tarts

Poutine

Sugar Pie

Tortiere

Figgy Duff

and of course…Maple Syrup