Thursday, March 18, 2010

Geographical Indications & Trade Marks

Prof. Jean-Pierre Boutonnet from INRA-France recently delivered a guest lecture at Tsukuba University, titled - `Value Building from Local resources or market segmentation: the role of geographical indicators for food products in France`.

Having read something about Geographical Indications (GI) in the context of Basmati rice, I had always assumed that the whole concept was based on solid scientific foundations. It now turns out that it is just a ruse; a legal construct to  protect the interests of producers in rich countries.

The WTO defines GI as indications which identify a good (food, handicraft, etc.,) which has a given quality, reputation or other characteristic essentially attributable to its geographical origin (art.22.1 TRIPS). The crux of this definition is "characteristic essentially attributable" which seems more and more dubious as you look closer...Nobody really seems to know how or on what basis the quality of a product can be attributed to its geographical origin. This dilemma can be illustrated nicely with the example of Pelardon Cheese in France.

In order to encourage diverse agricultural production, and to maintain rural income and population, the EC has recently come up with a regulation (no.510/2006, 10 March 2006), which elaborates GI into two categories -
  1. PDO - Protected Designation of Origin, which covers agricultural products nd foodstuffs which are produced, processed and packed at a given location using recognised know-how; and
  2. PGI - Protected Geographical Indication, which covers the same products where at least one stage of the production, processing or preparation takes places in a given area.
And then you have the notion of a `Terroir` - a defined boundary within which a community generates and accumulated along its history, a collective production know-how based on a system of interaction between bio-physical and human factors.

Pelardon is goat-cheese made in the terroir's of Southern France. In the PDO area, there are 300 goat-keepers who produce about 1100 tonnes of goat-cheese annually. Of the 300 farmers, 260 make their own cheese while the remaining 40 sell the milk to dairy farms. Since PDO certification requires membership fees, as well as compliance to rules and inspections, less than half the farmers (110) are allowed to market their product as Pelardon.

At the local level, there is obviously no difference in taste since nobody is willing to pay extra for goat-cheese marked as Pelardon. But at the regional and national level, the same product commands a premium because only the members can call their goat-cheese Pelardon.

Other interesting examples -
  • Bareges-Gavarnie Sheep Meat: From Baregeoise breed of Sheep reared by just 20 producers, at the altitude of 500 to 2800m in France
  • Kobe Beef - beef from the black Tajima-ushi breed of Wagyu cattle, raised according to strict tradition in Hyōgo Prefecture, Japan
  • Parma Ham - Originally the name of dry-cured ham from Parma region of Italy, it has now become a brand-name for a USA-based company. The Italians fought - and lost - the battle for the trade-mark because the US court ruled that since Palma Ham packets were clearly marked "Made in USA", customers would not be confused about its origins. 
If this is the case, why can't wine-producers in India market 'Champagne', as long as the bottles are clearly marked "Made in India"?  

The simple answer seems to be that all the definitions, rules and regulations are geared to protect the interests of a relatively small number of well organized, influential producers based in developed countries. This explains the dogged tenacity with which “Champagne” has been protected for the past 80 years.

The biggest market in the world, USA, does not recognize GIs. So Champagne is protected as a trademark (“TM”) in USA (+Japan, Australia) and as a PDO/GI product in Europe. Behind all this legal drama, one critical fact is often brushed over – that there is no conclusive scientific proof, either through “blind-tests” or through lab-analysis to prove that sparkling wine from Champagne region of France is any different from similar wines coming from vineyards in USA, Australia or even South India!

Same is the case with Café de Colombia. The company that markets this product has managed to pull the Champagne-trick for this brand of coffee as well. Coffee from Colombia – a modern political entity, not even specific geographical region – has been registered as a TM in USA and as a GI in Europe. The EU did so admittedly for “political reasons” because it did not want to give the impression that GIs are the exclusive preserve of products from developed countries.

Basmati-rice is yet another ‘third-world’ product which “unfortunately” could not “escape” being termed as a generic-name instead of getting a TM or GI, due to the “late action” from India / Pakistan.

As with many other issues, the rules-of-the-game in international trade seem to be tailored for the benefit of a rich few. Also perhaps another instance of snobbishness & hypocrisy being institutionalized to protect the farmers in rich countries.




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