EUís trade strategy on food favours the few at the expense of the many

EU member states negotiating the EU-US free trade agreement, TTIP, are defending the interests of just some member states and a very small number of producers. Europe would be better off focusing on ways to improve commerce for all, writes Allen Johnson.

Allen F. Johnson was an Ambassador at the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) in the Executive Office of the President from April 2001 until September 2005. During that time he served as the Chief Agricultural Negotiator under former U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick.

Europeans take enormous pride in their food – specifically, in the “heritage” foods of their regions. And why shouldn’t they? The cheeses, wines, meats – even specialty fruits and vegetables – are what define the very character of some of Europe’s most diverse regions. So what harm can come to Europeans in protecting the names of these specialty foods? It would seem that the system of geographical indications (GIs) – the program designed to do just that, would by its very nature be harmless and beneficial. But when it comes to the EU’s current approach to trade negotiations, this is true only for a handful of member states, at the expense of the rest.

The GI program, originally devised to protect consumers against misleading information and help producers better develop markets for their products, has over time become a means for some European producers to claim the exclusive right to use certain food and beverage denominations, which are common food names, in attempt to eliminate competition. Not surprisingly, the system has already created confusion and disputes, including within the EU itself, as the exclusive use of such common names as “parmesan” and “feta” has been restricted to Italian and Greek producers respectively, even though these types of cheeses have long been produced in several other European Countries.

This overreach is now being forced on other countries by the EU through the use of free trade agreements (FTAs), claiming a form of food colonialism for certain generic names with results that are at odds with the very principles of free trade, competition, consumer choice, and rewarding producers for their hard work and dedication.

Take for instance producers in Central America – many of European descent and whose families have for generations produced cheeses and built markets for their products – will no longer be able to use the names “parmesan” or “manchego” (just to name a couple) as a result of the recent trade agreement with the EU. Like their European producers in many member states, they now must also watch as European exporters from a few countries expropriate the markets they so proudly created and served.

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