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EU Digs In for Food Fight

(Feb. 13, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- SCOTT MILLER, Wall Street Journal,02/13/2003: GENEVA -- Over the centuries, Europe has given the world some of its favorite foods. Now the Continent wants the names of many of them back.

If European negotiators at the World Trade Organization get their way, numerous food names associated with specific regions, from the United Kingdom's cheddar cheese to the Czech Republic's pilsner beer to Italy's balsamic vinegar, will be reserved exclusively for companies located there. With a number of developing countries following the EU's lead, that could mean that hundreds if not thousands of products could have to be renamed when they are made in places like the U.S. or Australia.

It may not stop there. There are already indications that a number of countries want to police the adjectives used on product labels. And there is even talk that "geographic indications," as they are known, might be extended to include services like restaurants.

It's a horrifying prospect for retail groups and trade officials, who fear mass consumer confusion and protracted legal fights over how all those goods would be renamed. And that is to say nothing of damage to companies that stand to see the identities of some of their most popular products erased. Already there is talk that the fight, which largely pits the Old World against the New, could derail the current Doha round of trade liberalization talks in Qatar.

"It's offensive in the extreme to our producers," said Sara Thorn, director of International Trade for the U.S. Grocery Manufacturers Association in Washington. "It's goofy."

The way the Europeans and other countries see things, it's all about protecting what is rightfully theirs and helping consumers by eliminating fraudulent producers. Now, they say, people literally have to read the fine print on product labels to find out if it's the genuine article, or some cheap knockoff. Take mozzarella. EU officials argue that it is only truly made according to exacting standards in a small corner of Italy, and that while cheese from elsewhere may bear the name, it just doesn't taste the same. "Some of what passes for mozzarella outside of Europe tastes like chewing gum," said Franz Fischler, the European Union's commissioner for agriculture. "What we want to do is good for consumers."

What's more, Europeans claim that they sometimes can't even use their own names when selling abroad. A Canadian or American company, for example, could trademark a product with a European name that would prevent the "rightful" European manufacturer from selling his goods there.

Europe already has a strong example for its food-branding ambitions. In 1995, the world's major trading nations agreed on rules governing wines and spirits. That, for example, has prevented California and Australian makers of sparkling wines from selling their products as "Champagne" outside their home countries; only bubbly from the northeast corner of France can use that name globally. And the EU itself already has adopted geographic-indication laws governing nearly 600 products. Most recently, for example, Brussels ruled that only Greek companies that use goat milk and specific production methods can market and sell Feta cheese within the EU, much to the irritation of Danish and French makers of a similar product.

For New Worlders, the European idea amounts to nothing more than barefaced protectionism. "This doesn't speak about free trade, it's about making a monopoly of trade," said Sergio Marchi, Canada's ambassador to the WTO. "It's hard to even calculate the cost and confusion of administrating such a thing."

When Europeans settled the New World, he and others argue, they brought these products and the names with them. How can the Europeans who stayed behind claim their "own" place names now? What the Europeans are really trying to do is cover up for their own inefficient production practices, some charge. European farms, for example, are on the whole smaller and more labor intensive than their counterparts in the wide-open spaces of North America or Australia.

What's more, some argue, producers in the New World have in a sense earned the right to use these names. It's huge food companies there, not small mom-and-pop makers back on the Continent, who have marketed and built up the value of many of the product names the Europeans now want to protect, they say.

"Many European producers of wine and food are no longer as competitive, efficient or as innovative as their New World rivals," said David Spencer, Australia's ambassador to the WTO and an outspoken critic of geographic indications.

The debate at the world trade body is still in its early stages and it is still unclear how many names the Europeans want to reserve or even how to define a geographic indication. India, for example, wants basmati rice to be protected even though basmati isn't a place name.

Should the Europeans prevail, nonnative food makers would have to go back to the drawing board to invent totally new names for many household staples. Europe is opposed to wording like "-style" or "imitation" on product labels. The goods will literally have to be named something completely different.

American lobbyists argue that there already is a provision for protecting names, the trademark system. Indeed, numerous European names are already included under U.S. "certification marks." An American maker, for example, can't produce "Rocquefort" cheese, or use the term "Parma" when selling ham. "There should be a way to address European concerns within the trademark system," Ms. Thorn of the GMA said. Europeans, however, say that system leaves too much burden on the maker itself to find and point out offenders. Under the geographic-indications legislation, national governments would do that fighting for them.

Mr. Spencer and others, however, wonder where it will all stop. Europe, for example, argues that some descriptive words on wine labels have cultural connotations and shouldn't be used by outside producers. In bilateral negotiations outside the WTO, it has pressured some countries to stop selling wine in Europe with labels describing their product as "tawny," a color Europeans say is a traditional expression describing port.

And there are already worries that some companies may try to extend geographic production to services. Italy, for example, would like to test 60,000 Italian restaurants around the world, ensuring that they use Italian-made ingredients.

"Trying to colonize culinary traditions in restaurants and elsewhere is going too far," Canada's Mr. Marchi said. "Can you imagine inspectors wandering through Italian restaurants in Toronto or checking out tubs in Turkish bath houses in Tokyo?"

Write to Scott Miller at scott.miller@wsj.com