A European Union (EU) proposal to prohibit the use of certain generic terms to describe food and wine not from specific geographic regions sparked lively discussions among the nearly 200 participants at a three-day symposium on geographical indications (GIs) held in San Francisco and co-sponsored by the Department of Commerce's United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) on July 9-11.
U.S. agriculture and trademark interests, including representatives from Anheuser-Busch, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the International Trademark Association (INTA) and the Wine Institute, described the enormous economic costs and losses they or their members would incur if terms such as "feta" and "parmesan" for cheese, or "burgundy" and "chablis" for wine became banned terms in the United States. Longstanding, valuable trademarks and branding power would be lost. Labels would have to be re-designed and reprinted, marketing and advertising campaigns redefined and overhauled. In addition, representatives of food and wine producers in Canada, Chile, and Colombia cautioned developing countries about negotiating with the EU on these matters because of the EU's tendency to ask for monopoly rights to an increasing number of generic terms now widely used to describe food and wine. Just recently, for example, the EU passed a regulation prohibiting the use among EU nations of the phrase "aged five years" to describe anything other than certain wines from Portugal.
"It is more than a culinary debate. Geographical indications are valuable intellectual property rights," said James E. Rogan, Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property, in his opening address to symposium participants. "There are two problems, really: Americans can't get their GIs protected overseas, and Europe is demanding that we stop using common terms like "parmesan." This really strikes us as unfair. Why shouldn't Americans be able to eat a bologna sandwich or have a glass of chablis? And why should U.S. trademarks be jeopardized because some countries think they should have exclusive rights to use words like "parmesan" or 'feta'?"
The symposium was held in anticipation of a World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting on GIs scheduled for September in Cancun, Mexico. At this meeting, the European Union is expected to call for terminating the use of certain generic terms to describe food and wine - including "burgundy," "chablis," "champagne," "feta," "gorgonzola," "parmesan," "port," and "sherry"-unless those products come from Europe. If the EU is successful, use of terms such as feta and gorgonzola for cheese, and port and sherry for wine-now considered generic in many WTO member nations-could be prohibited in the United States, resulting in consumer confusion and potentially injuring U.S. domestic and international commerce in food and wine.
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