The cheeses include parmesan, feta, gruyere, edam and havarti.
NZ companies affected by the push for Geographical Indications in EU free-trade talks are understood to include Mainland, Puhoi Valley, Kapiti Cheese and Synlait Milk’s new acquisition, Talbot Forest Cheese group. Barrys Bay in Canterbury, ViaVio in Nelson and Zany Zeus in Lower Hutt also have business on the block.
Agreement to the EU demand would block exports of NZ cheeses using the protected names but whether they would also be restricted from sale would depend on the negotiations, EU delegation trade and economic section head Peter Saktor said.
“There is no yes or no answer as it very much depends on the negotiations around the rules protecting the GIs. NZ and EU negotiators are yet to have those talks.”
The starting point for negotiations was a list of foodstuffs. There is another list for wines and spirits.
“Whatever rules are negotiated they will also apply to protection of NZ products in the 500 million consumers market in the EU,” he said.
The Dairy Companies Association raised questions or objections on 26 of the proposed GIs, arguing many of the cheese styles are generic, based on widely-used ingredients, recipes and commercial products.
Essentially, cheeses like havarti had gone global so trying to shut down branding the product is an international trade barrier, association executive director Kimberly Crewther said.
NZ has been producing some of the cheese styles for decades but now finds some of the opportunity is being taken off the table, she said.
The proposed GIs in the New Zealand free-trade agreement are part of an EU agenda to extend GI protections beyond Europe through bi-lateral agreements, Crewther said.
Cheese exports are worth $2 billion a year to NZ and if cheese was a standalone industry it would be similar to wine and only just behind kiwifruit.
“We’ve got a really big concern here about the commercial opportunities.
“And it’s not just within the NZ market but it is the EU’s GI agenda globally.”
Crewther said China now protects feta after a trade deal with the EU. After substantial investment by western nations in product development and marketing, big Asian markets like China are starting to develop a taste for cheeses like mozzarella.
NZ’s dairy exports to China were worth more $5b in 2018 with total cheese exports to that country valued at more than $340m.
The EU defines a GI as a distinctive sign used to identify a product whose quality, reputation or other such characteristics relate to its geographical origin.
An EU website says it supports better protection of geographical indications internationally because of the increasing number of violations throughout the world.
Crewther said the EU-China agreement is part of a rapidly growing number of trade agreements the EU has negotiated with third countries such as Japan, Mexico, Vietnam and Singapore.
The association submitted its view on all of those negotiations, she said.
“Through these agreements the EU is seeking to monopolise a wide range of cheese terms that are in common use globally and produced in significant quantities outside of the EU.”
In 2017 the EU registered danbo as a protected term, despite the Danish dairy industry previously accepting danbo is a generic cheese name and a lot of it is produced outside Europe, including in NZ.
The EU more recently registered havarti as a protected term for sole use by Denmark in the EU. Again, most of the world’s havarti production is outside Denmark.
The EU implicitly recognised havarti as generic through a prior codex standard-setting process and in trade rules created by the World Trade Organisation.
Crewther said the association does not object to the principle of a GI framework in free-trade agreements but it objects to the mechanism being used to claw back names that should, by any reasonable measure, be considered to be a generic or common names for those cheeses.
Aligning with the framework could allow GI protection to continue to creep into common cheese names, Crewther said.
“It’s hugely risky and creates a high level of commercial uncertainty for our industry.”
The EU’s view is that GIs offer business a degree of protection, similar to the protection NZ businesses seek through trademarks.
“But there’s a natural time limit on how you can have a product out in the market and manufactured in multiple geographies and still claw it back under GI protection.”
NZ dairy accepts some GIs are legitimate, like Parmigiano-Reggiano.
“It’s a specific cheese with specific characteristics that is made within a geography. Parmesan … we see that as a generic cheese.”
But the EU considers parmesan to be a translation or an evocation of Parmigiano-Reggiano, which extends protection on the cheese.
“We’re saying keep it to the names that are geographically specific.”
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade is considering the dairy industry’s objections as part of its free-trade negotiations. After consulting on the proposed GIs, the ministry asked for views on the rules framework. The association wants clarity on the criteria for protecting cheese names, including when and how names can be protected based on a translation or evocation.
Across the entire free-trade negotiations, the EU is seeking changes to NZ regulations to protect 2200 terms with provision for more to be protected in future, Crewther said.
EU raises awareness for its names claims
The European Union says geographic indications work for Europe and it think they could work for New Zealand, Canterbury University EU policy expert Dr Serena Kelly says.
The EU’s NZ delegation contracted Kelly to set up a stand at the NZ Agricultural Show in Christchurch in November.
“It’s a public diplomacy initiative,” Kelly said.
“Traditional diplomacy is about the top-level discussions and usually it goes on in this vacuum and the general public don’t know about it.
“So we were raising awareness about GIs – and that there’s a free-trade agreement being negotiated.”
Europe has been using GIs for about 30 years. Starting from nothing NZ would need more resources if it adopts GIs for its own products, she said.
“Most of the GIs are alcohol and it’s not really a problem. I know the NZ wine industry has wanted this for a long time.
“Back in the 2000s Australia got recognition and NZ didn’t. Something happened in those negotiations way back then so the wine industry is really keen and it’s the dairy industry who aren’t.”
At a global level the EU wants bilateral agreements like the one with NZ because it shows a commitment to free trade.
“They’ve been open about this in the past. The reason that they’ve pushed ahead with (bi-lateral agreements like the one with NZ) is to show the world that free-trade agreements are alive and kicking.
“It’s in the face of (United States President Donald) Trump and in the face of Brexit that they’re pushing ahead.”
The EU won’t get an economic benefit from a free-trade agreement with NZ but it gets a political legitimacy, Kelly said.