There are now more than 3,330 Geographical Indications (GIs) registered in the EU, encompassing all types of agriculture and food products. The sophisticated system which now applies in the EU has emerged from over 100 years of intellectual property agreements. These have progressively refined a legal basis for preventing food and drink manufacturers from ‘passing off’ their products as having qualities, linked to geographic origin, which in reality they do not possess.
The WTO agreement on intellectual property rights (TRIPS) provides an international baseline for protecting and promoting GIs, but the EU system in many respects goes beyond TRIPS to provide very specific forms of protection for specific product names, including some which critics view as being, in reality, common or generic names.
EU food and drink products may be registered with the status of Protected Designation or Origin (PDO), Protected Geographical Indication (PGI), or Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG) – depending broadly on how close the association is between the product and the locality. Slightly different arrangements apply for wines and spirits.
According to a widely-cited academic study dating from 2010, sales of European food and drink products with GI labels amount to around €54 billion, with premium wines taking a large share of this value. It has also been estimated that fraudulent sales of products carrying GI labels to which they should not be entitled may amount to over €4 billion a year.
A significant and growing proportion of the value of GI product sales is accounted for by exports, and the EU has been very active in seeking international protection for its most important GIs by embedding them in its network of bilateral and regional trade agreements. But these initiatives have provoked controversy among some food and drink producers in third countries, who have taken exception to what they see as the EU’s ‘predatory’ attempts to claim sole use of food terms which they view as being in common use. This controversy shows no sign of abating as the EU expands its portfolio of trade agreements with major players in all parts of the world.
Meanwhile, the departure of the UK from the EU, scheduled for 2019, will represent a test for the international resilience of the EU’s GI system, as Britain decides how to deal with current (and future) GI registrations as a newly- created non-EU country.