U.S. companies resist EU efforts to claim common food names

By CAROL RYAN DUMAS

Capital Press

An international consortium of food companies and farm organizations is working to block efforts by the European Union and others to restrict the use of common food names to products made in certain geographic locations.

"It's a fierce threat on how some of the most popular products are recognized and marketed," said Jaime Castaneda, executive director of the Consortium for Common Food Names and senior vice president of trade policy at the U.S. Dairy Export Council.

The group is not opposed to proper geographic indications such as "Camembert de Normandie" and "Brie de Meaux" cheeses from France, and is seeking the adoption of an appropriate model for protecting legitimate geographic indications.

It is opposed to restrictions on the generic names of foods such as feta, provolone and bologna produced and consumed around the world and wants protections for those as well, he said.

"No one country or entity should own common food names," Castaneda said.

While many food products originated in Europe, the popularity of those now generic products is due to efforts by producers all over the world.

But the EU is trying to own the name and pressing its trading partners to agree to buy that product exclusively from Europe.

It would be like claiming only Italians should be permitted to make pizza, he said.

The European Union began attempting to expand the system of geographic indications in World Trade Organization negotiations in the Doha Round. While those efforts stalled, the EU has begun inserting naming restrictions in free trade and other agreements that would be backed by EU courts.

The EU is in free-trade negotiations with several countries and its naming restrictions are alarming, Castaneda said.

And the decision to confiscate or monopolize common names for varietal types of food is arbitrary. For example, the commission has restricted the use of "feta" as a geographic indication of Greece when there is no town or region in Greece bearing that name, he said.

The EU has protections in place for about 1,000 food-related geographic indications, and most pose no conflict, according to the consortium. But it is also attempting to expand the list to names that have become generic.

If its efforts are successful, manufacturers around the world would be forced to relabel and rebrand their products, and consumers wouldn't recognize them.

That would cost billion of dollars, confuse consumers and create a virtual monopoly on the product, Castaneda said.

"This is not just a question of dollars and sense, but of fairness and choice," said Errico Auricchio, chairman of the Consortium and owner of BelGioioso Cheese Inc., Green Bay, Wis.

These generic names are in the public domain, he said, so the logical path is to label foods so consumers can choose what they want no matter where the product is from.

The onsortium intends to inform consumer groups, farmer associations, manufacturers, and agricultural, trade and intellectual officials of the risks of such restrictions.

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