US objects to EU-China quality food labelling pact

According to the EU's highest court, "Only cheese bearing the protected designation of origin (Dop) can be sold under the name 'Parmesan'." [STR/EPA]

US meddling and counterfeit Chinese trademarks are threatening to unpick the bilateral agreement between Beijing and Brussels on geographical indications of food products. EURACTIV Italy reports.

According to documents from the Greek ministry of agriculture, the negotiations between the European Union and China for mutual recognition of 200 food products protected by geographical indications (GIs) – 100 from each side – will have to reconcile the EU’s quality schemes with 25 homonymous trademarks already registered in the People’s Republic of China.

Beijing wants to keep its trademarks, despite the protection accorded to products labelled under the GI quality scheme in the EU. GIs offer consumers certainty about the authenticity of the food products they buy, certifying their geographic origin and the techniques used to make them.

To defend their quality labels, Greece, Italy and the six other countries with the largest number of GI products in Europe (France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Hungary, Romania) are willing to support a large-scale legal action of European consortiums in China, seeking the elimination of the counterfeit trademarks.

EU member states to take China to court over fake geographical indications

Eight member states of the European Union will take legal action against China over 25 counterfeit trademarks on the Chinese market that mislead consumers on the origin of products protected by the EU’s geographical indications.

The European Commission, which leads negotiations with Beijing, simply stated that its “objective is to achieve the best possible result, even for producers who are facing competition from products already registered as trademarks in China and not originating in the EU”.

US enters the mix

The matter has been further complicated by interference from across the Atlantic. The Consortium for Common Food Names (CCFN), the US dairy industry’s arm to counter the spread in the world of European GI labelling system, filed a formal objection in Beijing to the “generic names threatened by the EU-China agreement”.

Examples of trademarks already in use in China include Feta, Asiago, Gorgonzola, Parmesan, Cheddar and the adjective “Romano” for Pecorino.

The CCFN has used a procedure that is “common practice in the recognition of geographical indications”, explained Massimo Vittori, director of the organisation OriGIn, which protects consortiums around the world.

“It allows third parties to file objections to the request for protection by submitting a statement, provided that it is duly motivated. In this case, the complaint was envisaged in the context of a bilateral negotiation and it is very likely that its assessment will take place in the finalisation of the agreement, scheduled for the end of the year.

“We are convinced that these assessments will be made on the basis of exclusively legal reasons, and are therefore optimistic about the full recognition in China of all the European geographical indications on the list.”

Commission open to member states' push to protect quality foods in China

The European Commission will not block member states’ attempts to sue China over its use of counterfeit trademarks and has insisted a future bilateral deal with the Asian superpower will bring “significant benefits” for Europe’s quality food producers.

The European Commission confirmed the timing and the general approach. EU executive officials recall how generic objections should be “justified on the basis of objective evidence” (supported by consumer surveys, dictionary entries and other forms of proof).

The burden of proof is initially in the hands of those who submit the objection and “the principle of territoriality applies”: the demand for generic names “applies exclusively to the territory covered by the agreement, in this case the EU and China”.

In short, American claims of generic denomination of products will not stand up so easily in the People’s Republic.