Confusion reigns in regional food brands protection ruling

by Eric Schroeder
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GENEVA — Findings in a World Trade Organization dispute over the protection of regional food brands such as Parma ham and Roquefort cheese prompted the United States, Australia and the European Union to all claim victory.

The dispute began in 1992, when U.S. and Australian authorities argued that 700 protected "geographical indications" in the E.U. discriminated against imported products. That discrimination, the U.S. said, barred products such as Florida oranges from receiving the same level of protection as other foods.

In releasing its ruling Tuesday, the W.T.O. said the European Union system was too complex, all the while keeping the protection system in place but extending the right to non-E.U. countries.

The U.S. praised the W.T.O. for its finding that the E.U. food classifying system hurt the chances of non-E.U. companies.

"We’re very pleased with this decision," said Peter Allgier, acting U.S. Trade Represenative. "It’s a clear win for American farmers and food processors.

"For years, Europe effectively had a ‘Do Not Apply’ sign directed at foreign producers. We believed that, under W.T.O. rules, U.S. farmers, ranchers and other food producers should have the same access to protection for ‘geographical indications’ as European food producers, and that the European system discriminated against us.

"(Tues') the W.T.O. issued a crystal clear ruling that agreed with our view that Europe failed to provide Americans fair access. We also welcome the panel’s findings that protecting G.I.s need not and should not harm the rights of trademark owners. These findings are important to the rights of U.S. companies protecting their trademarks in Europe."

Australian officials also welcomed the W.T.O. ruling, saying the finding went against the E.U. for not providing the same protection it claimed for its own products.

Despite the seeming victory for the U.S. and Australia, the E.U. maintained that it, too, had achieved its goals through the ruling, saying the settlement panel "upholds the integrity of the E.U. system and rejects the majority of the claims made by the United States and Australia."

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