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Seminar Explores Ways To Protect Common Food Product Names Threatened By EU

The Consortium for Common Food Names (CCFN), at a seminar held here Tuesday, advised US food and beverage companies how to preserve the use of common cheese, meat and wine terms long considered generic in the US and many other countries.

Officials from the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) raised awareness of the problem of overprotection of geographical indications in US export markets and how this protection might impact the use of common names.

More than 70 food company representatives, intellectual property attorneys and others attended the seminar. Speakers and panelists stressed that there are ways to protect the threatened names, including seeking guidance from CCFN, an independent, international alliance whose goal is to work with leaders in agriculture, trade and intellectual property rights to foster the adoption of high standards and model geographical indication guidelines around the world.

Examples of the names at risk are numerous, but most alarming, CCFN noted, was the clear message that geographical indication over-reach by the European Union (EU) appears to be a never-ending proposition that could include numerous terms and images that are not directly threatened at this time.

“Protecting the right to use these common food terms, whether they are Parmesan cheese or valencia oranges or chateau or bologna, is vital for the growth of the US food and beverage industries in the United States,” said Jaime Castaneda, CCFN’s executive director. “The seminar explained the tools available to companies to help protect the names they have long relied on.”

Seminar attendees learned the major considerations the USPTO and other intellectual property authorities use in awarding trademarks and geographical indications, as well as the extent to which generic use is a factor.

Individually, USPTO representatives attending the seminar provided information to interested companies about export considerations, including seeking protection for trademarks in overseas markets.

Earlier this year, the European Commission released a concept paper on GIs for the ongoing EU-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations.

According to the concept paper, EU stakeholders, when asked to provide inputs in the framework of TTIP submissions, listed a number of obstacles in the current US system of protection perceived as preventing EU GIs to be adequately and effectively protected in the US, and notably:

• The level of protection, notably for agricultural products and foodstuffs, is lower than for wines and spirits.
• Costs of registration under the trademark regime: many EU GI associations do not have the financial resources to cover costs associated with the registration under the US trademark system.
• Absence of enforcement by administrative action.
• Some EU GIs face the issue of prior trademarks, when the same or similar names have already been registered as trademarks (or as part of a composite mark) by a third party with no genuine link with a GI.
• Several EU GIs cannot be protected because their respective names (or part of them) are considered in the US to have acquired an alleged generic nature.

In the EU’s view, what is at stake on GIs is not a question of principle — both the EU and the US recognize GIs and both promote protection of their respective GIs — but the achievement of key substantive objectives that would guarantee an appropriate protection of EU and US GIs, including:

• Rules guaranteeing an appropriate level of protection for EU GIs;
• Administrative enforcement against misuse of EU GIs;
• Establishment of list(s) of GI names, to be protected directly through the agreement at the level and with the type of enforcement foreseen in the agreement (the EU included numerous GI names in an annex attached to its concept paper; cheeses on the list included, among others, Feta, Asiago, Fontina, Gorgonzola, Taleggio, Neufchatel, Kasseri, Munster, and Queso Manchego); and
• Specific arrangements in case of specific GI names.

The concept paper proposed to begin identifying, on the basis of the specific shortcomings it identified with regard to the protection of GIs, possible ways that would enhance such protection, starting from an analysis of available legal instruments in US legislation.