IS IT worth finding new names for cheeses such as Feta, Brie, Camembert, Parmesan and Stilton to gain an advantage in trade negotiations?

Bond University Professor William Van Caenegem believes it could be, and, once the confusion over cheeses settles, there could be some big benefits for the country's agriculture industry.

Caenegem was a co-author on two reports about geographic indications (GIs) in late 2013. GIs are widely used in Europe, and in other countries such as China and Japan, but Australia has resisted in every industry except wine that's why we produce sparkling wine instead of Champagne.

With Australia about to enter negotiations with the EU on a new free trade deal, Van Caenegem expects the Old World countries to pressure Australia into honouring the many GIs they hold.

"There is a long history in trade negotiations, where the Europeans are very keen to see GIs protected to a high standard all around the world, but countries with an agricultural sector in the New World have opposed that," explains Van Caenegem.

While there would be a cost to Australian producers to rebrand their product, Van Caenegem argues that there are some very good reasons to give the Europeans their GIs and to create our own.

What has been the effect of Australia agreeing to recognise GIs in alcohol products?

The Europeans have been putting pressure on Australia to stop using their GIs in a descriptive sense for a long time, and in the mid 80s the Australians made a concession and entered a treaty with Europe in which they gave up the right to use all those geographical terms in the wine industry.

From then on, Australia was not able to use the term Port, because that is made in a place in Portugal, or other drinks such as Champagne, Burgundy, and Chablis. That is under a special treaty and Australia got better access to the European wine market in the long term as a result. Remarkably enough, since that moment, wine exports to the world and also particularly to Europe have gone up steeply.

The fact that Australia has become a bit less of an imitator and a bit more focused on its own varietals, plus its own corporate brands, and regional names - Barossa, Coonawarra, Hunter Valley - has been a very effective marketing combination. If we marketed Australian champagne people would say it is an imitation of the real thing.

So there is evidence that Australian producers have benefited from honouring GIs. Do you believe that other industries should consider the benefits of such an approach?

It is a bit of a game in some ways. How good would a system of registered GIs be if we introduced this for non-wine in Australia? Would it help Australian farmers register a geographical term connected to a product and gain quite a high level of protection for that?

No one has ever asked that question before, because everyone is always thinking 'oh, we mustn't give into the Europeans'.

Put that aside for a moment and focus on whether there is a good policy reason to have this.

One reason is that Australia has some strong potential GIs: for example, King Island beef and cheese. Registering King Island beef as a GI would mean that for any product sold under that name the cow or veal potentially must have lived on King Island for an agreed minimum period, and is fed on local grass, etc.

You set the standard, then everyone knows that if they see King Island beef in shops, then they have that guarantee: that it does come from King Island and reflects the standards on the island.

There have been quite a few companies using the Byron Bay name.

A lot of people are trying to get trademarks with a place name in it and that is not good from a policy perspective because one company then monopolises that name.

The system of GIs is where all the producers in the area govern it, and one company cannot try and exclude others from using what is ultimately a descriptive term.

It seems to be in Australia that you can register a trademark for a place name much easier than in other countries. That is a problem, as it is against the principles of trademark law, which say that a descriptive term should not be registered.

There is a realisation in the trademarks office, and a movement is happening there due to internal research on the situation. The question they are asking is: with registering trademarks for place names, have we got the right approach? If we had a GI system, what would that mean for the trademark system?

They have started to look into that.

You travelled the country talking to producers about how to value-add locally. What did they think about using GIs?

It is controversial as to what the true story is. We asked that question. For example, we spoke to a producer growing cherries in Tasmania and asked if there was anything exceptional about them. We were told they were very big, sweet and ripen earlier than elsewhere in the country, and only in Tasmania do they do this. They believe it. They tell that story and the consumer comes to believe it to a degree.

A lot of people who understood that thinking, and were using the back story of their region, their processes, and their history, were saying to consumers that this is a special product, and you should pay more. They believed in that, and at the end we came down in our report in favour of having a system where you could protect GIs.

In that report we said a system should be introduced so people have an opportunity to register a food product other than wine.

I would have to say that yes, the majority, when we explained the nature of the system and the difference from a trademark system, most were in favour, at least for having the option.

In some places, the conditions might be right to do it. So you might have Tasmanian cherries, and King Island beef. You might have heard of Bangalow pork?

I haven't, but what happened there?

Bangalow is a little place near Byron bay. We interviewed a guy there who was an expert in feed regimes for pigs and he explained that if you feed them a certain thing the pig is fatter and tastier. The supermarkets want lean meat, but that is not good for taste. Fatter pork is better and this man had the feed regime. He got together with a few people in Bangalow to use that feed regime. They managed to produce this pork that was seemingly very good and a lot of restaurants bought into it, paid a premium for it, and that was essential for producers, as the regime was quite expensive.

What happened then - and this illustrates the problem if you don't have a GI system - is that a whole lot of people started to ride on the coattails of that - they were actually in Lismore or Byron Bay, and were using cheap feed but still selling it as Bangalow pork, but it was not clear what Bangalow pork meant, or where the area started and finished. Policing it was very difficult. That initiative fell apart, they lost control of the name, and he was quite upset about it in the end.

That is a typical story. What they could have done if there was a GI system, is that they could have made standards with an avenue to enforce them.

What has been the reaction from politicians?

We were very interested to see what the reaction would be, because there has been a lot of scepticism of GIs that comes from the international trade debate. At the Commonwealth level, we haven't had anyone pick it up to introduce legislation, and that would be the ultimate.

However, we have been contacted by people at state level who are interested in a similar system, although it doesn't work very well at state level in a Commonwealth like Australia.

In Tasmania, we were contacted by the whiskey producers and they said they were worried about protecting their new and very high quality industry. Tasmanian whiskey won the prize for the best whiskey in the world in 2014, and the makers want legislation through the Tasmanian parliament to protect this term Tasmanian whiskey to make sure it is made in Tasmania, that it is made from Tasmanian or largely Tasmanian ingredients, and with certain processes to maintain those high standards.

There has been a shift to more acceptance that there might be a good policy argument in favour of having GIs irrespective of international trade negotiation, and that perhaps there is an issue with trademarks within our country.

Do you believe this issue could come to a head as Australia negotiates the EU free trade agreement and continues exporting large amounts of produce to China?

The EU and China have a quid pro quo approach to negotiating GIs, but in Australia we don't have that approach. We have wine GIs, but we don't have food GIs. We can't say, 'give us your list and we will protect some of them, but here, you protect ours' Tasmanian whisky, for example. Tasmanian crayfish would benefit from a high level of protection overseas, but we can't play that game.

Australia has initiated free trade negotiations with Europe, so they have scoping talks at the moment. The Europeans have said that GIs are a deal breaker; if Australia doesn't make any concessions on GIs, then forget it. Suddenly, there is a pointy end to this topic.

The question would be: what concessions do you make? Obviously, if you don't have your own GIs, there is nothing to haggle with.

It is going to become an important issue. If the Europeans want concessions on GIs, what forms are they going to take? They will ask us to consider giving up some of the terms for domestic use, but Australia is not very keen on that. But maybe it is worth it, in terms of gaining access to the European market.

It would certainly be disruptive for the dairy industry if cheeses were included.

If you can't use the terms that everyone knows the product for, it is a big education campaign to popularise another term that nobody would have ever heard of, while also making it clear what the product is. They can sell the same product, they just have to call it something different, but consumers are suspicious, so it is really difficult.

That is why the dairy industry said it would never give up those terms, such as Parmesan, Brie, and Camembert, because what on earth are they going to call all this stuff?

There are potential advantages for rural economies through getting people to work together, getting them to think about quality products and how to protect the backstory and image of the products and subsequently getting a better price for their product, including overseas, where people are getting away from commodified agriculture.

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