New rules ease foreign access to protected name status

By Ahmed ElAmin

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: European union, World trade organization

In a bid to meet World Trade Organisation demands, the European
Commission plans to make it easier for non-EU companies to gain
geographical indications (GI) protection for speciality brand

A WTO decision last June found that parts of the EU's GI rules serve to unfairly bar outside competitors from the market.

The WTO finding was made after the US and other countries complained that the GI rules were a form of trade protectionism.

Under the Commission's new proposals non-EU companies will no longer have to apply for registration under the system through their national governments.

They will be able to register their specialty foods directly with the European Commission, reducing the time needed for the application and approval process.

The proposed changes would also get rid of the requirement that non-EU applicants must be from countries that make equivalent guarantees on their home market and for third countries to give EU GIs the same protection.

In an interview with Michael Mann, the Commission's spokesperson for agriculture and rural development, said that he does not expect the changes to disadvantage EU companies.

EU companies will still go through the lengther process of first gaining the approval of their national governments before the application is passed on to the Commission for final registration and protection.

"I don't think this is an issue,"​ he said. "Although it might be a little more labourous the end result is going to be the same."

The Commission also proposes to simplify the registration process and clarify the role of member states in making applications. The administrative body plans to publish an outline of all the necessary information needed for registration, information and inspection purposes that will be needed in a well-defined "single document" application.

The proposals also seek to promote the GI labeling system and the use of the EU logos as a means of gaining consumer recoginition.

The changes relate to the GI rules governing agricultural products, such as feta cheese, specialty olive oils and meats. The EU set up the GI system in 1996 as a means of providing protection for producers making specialty and traditional foods that are linked to specific regions.

The system reserves the use of the specified names to designate the origin and geographical location where agricultural products and foodstuffs are produced or processed. The protection can also refer to specific conditions relating to processing, preparation or recipe as defined by the producers.

Mariann Fischer Boel, the commissioner for agriculture and rural development said the GI system is a cornerstone of the EU's quality policy. The changes must be approved by the EU's Council and Parliament to meet the WTO deadline of April 2006.

"The Commission intends to implement a more efficient and fully WTO-compatible registration procedure for special products of this type,"​ she stated.

The number of regional and speciality products for which denominations are registered under EU quality schemes now stands at 720. Another 300 applications are under consideration.

Protected names that have gained GI status include those for 150 cheeses, 160 meat and meat-based products, 150 fresh or processed fruits or vegetables and 80 types of olive oil.

The EU wants international recognition for the system and has applied to WTO. That application is being contested by the US, which claims the system is nothing but another form of trade protection.

In their complaint about the system before the WTO the US and others alleged that the EU's GI system discriminated against non-EU producers by making it more difficult for them to get status.

The process therefore contravened a WTO agreement which provides for equal treatment, the countries claimed.

The US also protested about the impact of GIs on prior trade mark rights, as GIs protect the name of the product itself and its linguistic variations.

In its report, a WTO panel ruled that the GI Regulation was inconsistent with international agreements on several counts.< /p>

The panel said that the reciprocity conditions did not treat non-EU companies equally and that the it restricts prior trade mark owners from filing protests against registered GIs.

The US also complained about the requirement that only governments rather than individuals can object to registrations.

The WTO recommended that the EU amend the regulation so the anti-trading conditions do not to apply to the procedures for registration of GIs located in other WTO members.

EU spokesperson Mann said the WTO ruling was also a victory for the EU as it recognised the overall GI system as valid.

He also noted that there had been no non-European goods yet registered for similar protection. The EU received its first international application in June from Colombia for the "Cafe de Colombia" brand.

The Commission requested more information from Colombia last month.

The Commission's proposals to meet the WTO's demands must first be approved by the bloc's Council of Ministers and by the parliament. The WTO will then examine it again if the US and Australia file further protests.

Separate proposals relating to WTO rulings on the classification of spirit drinks under the GI system have also been submitted by the Commission.

The draft defines a policy for spirit drinks based on three product categories rooted in the current product definitions.

The new spirit drinks regulation would improve the clarity of the current legislation, the Commission stated.

It would also adapt the regulations to meet WTO requirements, including the definition of criteria guiding the recognition of new GI registrations.

It would also adapt the regulations to new technical requirements and combine the present two spirit drinks regulations into one.

Related topics: Markets

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