Monday, February 13, 2012

Business Line : Opinion : India can't say ‘cheese'

Business Line : Opinion : India can't say ‘cheese'

Europe is particularly proud of its local cheeses. But it doesn't stop at that. The Europeans want to be the only ones to be able to sell feta, gouda, emmental, mozzarella, and so on, globally. Within Europe, these names are protected by the law of geographical indications (GI). GIs are a kind of intellectual property right (IPR) historically from Europe. The original idea behind GIs is to give exclusive rights to the use of a name for a product, if that origin gives the item its special characteristics — whether because of the soil, a traditional production method, or other reasons.

Thus, Mozzarella is regarded as an Italian Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG) food product. And Emmentaler cheese from Switzerland has been registered since 2000 as an appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC). Likewise, the word ‘feta' can only be used to sell brined curd cheese traditionally made in Greece.

Feta has been a protected designation of origin (PDO) product in EU since 2002. The European Commission has also designated ‘Gouda Holland' cheese and ‘Edam Holland' cheese as Protected Geographical Indications (PGIs).

For the EU, GIs are an important tool to secure market control on agricultural products, especially in competition with the US, which relies on trademarks. Two-thirds of the Netherlands' cheese production is exported to other countries. So EU doesn't want so-called ‘Gouda' and ‘Edam' cheeses also produced in other countries, to be labelled and sold as “Gouda Holland” or “Edam Holland”.

At the WTO too, GIs were included on the insistence of European trade negotiators. But there, only a narrow system of GIs is allowed for wines and spirits.

A pending issue at the WTO is whether to expand the level of protection — currently given to wines and spirits — to other products. EU has been, for years, trying to extend this system to all products (cheese, meats, and so on) but the US won't allow it. So EU is now including GIs in its FTAs.

For instance, the Confederation of the food and drink industries of the European Union (CIAA), welcomes the FTA with Korea that grants greater protection to more than 160 EU GIs. This sets a clear precedent for future FTAs to be concluded by the EU. For CIAA is particularly concerned with the exports of value-added agricultural products from the ‘new and emerging economies' like India.

The Government of India (GoI) has been negotiating a very controversial FTA with the EU since 2007. This is so, not only because of the extent that it opens India to European business interests, but also because the link that these IP provisions with the everyday lives and livelihoods of local farmers, livestock keepers and small dairies has neither been made clear to them by the GoI, nor have they been consulted regarding the FTA texts. Yet, the FTA is on top of the agenda of the EU-India Summit that will take place on February 10, 2012, in New Delhi.


In defence of the FTA, trade negotiators claim that Indian agricultural products will gain market access to the 27 European countries that are members of EU. But this might never happen. Firstly, with this FTA, Indian negotiators are agreeing to the removal of actual applied tariffs on more than 90 per cent of Indian tariff lines, including agricultural products that will bring an influx of imports. And with GIs, EU is, and will remain, aggressive. This kind of IPR protection to European agricultural products can create as much a problem for Indian agricultural products, keeping them from that elusive share in global markets.

The EU wanted that GIs originating from its territories be granted automatic recognition and protection through the FTA. In response, the Indian side reportedly proposed that products that have been registered and protected as GIs under EU's Council Regulation (EC) NO 510/2006 on the protection of GIs and designations of origin for agricultural products and foodstuffs, will be registered under India's GI law only after the application is examined and processed as per the Indian Act and the Rules.


After becoming a member of the WTO, India too passed legislation on GIs — the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act in 1999, and made its implementing rules in 2002.

Thus far, GoI has been encouraging groups and/or associations of its own small producers to register their products for GI protection. But from the last financial year (April 2010-March 2011), for the first time under Indian law, five foreign products were given GI protection.

The four from Europe include two from France — Champagne and Cognac, one from Italy — Prosciutto de Parma; and one from the UK — Scotch Whisky.

So, the process of granting GI protection to European products is underway, irrespective of the delay in finalising the FTA. Europe's cheeses are yet to fully get GI protection under Indian law. When that happens, India's own Amul won't be allowed to sell cheeses under the names Gouda, Emmentel or Mozzarella. As those names would sound like, and be similar to, the European GIs. The sale of any product that competes with EU's GI-protected ones will be affected.

The Indian dairy sector, with its small producers, will have reason to worry. Besides India, Amul also sells its products in the overseas markets such as in Mauritius, UAE, the US, Oman, Bangladesh, Australia, China, Singapore, Hong Kong and a few South African countries. India's Amul butter girl will soon have less to smile about.

(The author, based in Delhi, is trained in law and works on trade, agriculture and biodiversity issues.)

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