Feta cheese and the EU-China agreement on geographical indications

Feta cheese. It’s number 16 on a list of 100 agri-food, wine and spirits names that China will soon protect as Europe’s intellectual property (IP). That’s because the European Union (EU) and China signed a deal on region-specific names, called geographical indications (GIs), that will debut next year. The deal will expand to cover at least 550 European and Chinese GIs, and give agri-foods, like feta, the same level of protection reserved globally for wine and spirits. This will change the landscape of global agricultural trade.      

You know the names: Champagne, Chianti, Cognac. But you might not know that these names are IP, just like a patent or trademark. They’re known as GIs and they confer monopoly rights on the use of the name where the good’s “quality, reputation or other characteristic” is due to its geography. GIs are covered by the World Trade Organization (WTO), but Brussels is pushing for more in the EU’s trade agreements and standalone GI accords.

Europe’s enthusiasm for GIs is unrivaled. Nearly all of the GIs that most people know of belong to Europe. The challenge right now is that the EU wants to defend its cheeses and other agri-foods as fully as it safeguards its wine and spirits.

The WTO grants added protection for wine and spirits GIs. A single malt whisky that isn’t made in Scotland can’t be called scotch, but it also can’t be labeled as “scotch-type” or “scotch-style.” Not so feta. Agri-foods don’t get this added protection, so “feta-type” or “feta-style” can be fair game. The EU wants to fix this, but with few other countries rallying to its cause, Europe is taking matters into its own hands. 

Brussels negotiated 168 GIs in its trade deal with Canada, and 72 with Japan. Europe has a handful of GI agreements on wine and spirits, including two with the U.S., and one with Iceland on agri-foods. The EU wants better protection for GIs on agri-food more generally. That’s where the deal with China comes in. 

Signed in July, the EU-China deal includes 14 articles and various annexes listing the GIs to be covered now and in the future. The text’s main innovation is Article 4, which gives all the covered GIs the same level of protection the WTO extends only to wine and spirits. This means non-EU producers can’t sell “cheddar-style” cheese to China, including Wisconsin farmers. And that’s the flashpoint.

Europe has 3,300 registered GIs. Not all of them have widespread support inside the EU or abroad. Take feta. EU-China includes an eight-year transition period on feta. That’s because Denmark makes a lot of feta. Bulgaria and France are big feta producers too. Phasing in the GI over a lengthy transition period is Brussels’ way of kicking the can down the road. 

The U.S. makes feta as well. So, too, does Australia. This raises the question: Does the GI still mean anything? Critics urge that names like feta are now generic terms, untethered to any geography in the mind of consumers. In this view, enshrining feta in IP is a protectionist plot.

The plot thickens. There are also descriptors and adjectives that often go along with GIs. For example, “ruby” and “tawny” appear on labels of Porto. They aren’t part of the GI itself but play a supporting role. The fear is that they might be restricted in defense of a GI. In the Trans-Pacific Partnership, for example, a long list of wine descriptors and adjectives keeps terms like “chateau” and “clos” available for use.    

EU-China is a wake-up call. As with all IP, there’s a balance to be struck in granting GIs. Like the rest of the economy, U.S. agriculture needs an IP strategy.

Marc L. Busch is the Karl F. Landegger Professor of International Business Diplomacy at the Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and host of the podcast TradeCraft.

Tags Economic geography European Union Feta Geographical indication Intellectual property law Trademark law World Trade Organization

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