EU cheese and whisky rules could give Australia a boost

What's in a name when it's the quality of the goods that matters?

Some Australian food and drink products would need to be re-named under strict changes proposed by the European Union in negotiations for a free trade deal.

The EU wants Australia to stop using names such as 'feta’ and 'Scotch whisky', and Australian feta-makers could be forced to refer to their cheese as ‘Australian feta’. Or call their cheese ‘Pheta’.

“When is feta no longer feta?” asks Tim Harcourt, the JW Nevile Fellow in Economics at UNSW Business School. “When the EU says, feta made in Australia is not feta.”

With Brexit just two months away, and likely to shake up the trading landscape between Australia and parts of Europe, the EU now wants tighter regulation on ‘geographical indications’ for food such as ham or cheese, wine and spirits. 

“Cheese names like feta, gruyere, or gorgonzola could not be used by Australian cheesemakers with similar issues for Parma ham, Prosciutto di Parma, Scotch steaks or Scotch or Irish whiskey. In some cases, the EU says the name ‘Camembert de Normandie’ is seeking protection but ‘camembert’ is OK,” says Harcourt. 

“Yes, it can be confusing, and it is said there is room for negotiation as this is just a consultation phase.”

What are geographical indications? 

“Geographical indications seek to protect the intellectual property based on a product’s place of origin," explains Harcourt.

"The most famous example is champagne, whereby the French wine producers from the northern region of Champagne insisted that only they could call it ‘champagne’, so Australian wine-makers had to call their bubbles sparkling wine. Similarly, Australian burgundy – Burgundy is another region in France – became ‘pinot noir’, so the wine was named after the grape not the place of origin.”

However, Harcourt, a former economist at Austrade, says there could be some large potential gains for Australian trade under the new naming rules, following the release of a list of 172 foods and 236 spirits the EU wants protected in return for a free trade agreement with Australia. 

“Tasmania has some of the cleanest water in world, as well as some of the best barley growing land in Australia. So maybe ‘Tasmanian whisky’ is a far more saleable name than calling it ‘Scotch whisky from Hobart’, even if the EU’s claim to ‘Scotch’ would end if the UK leaves the EU.”

Harcourt believes Australian exporters will swallow geographical indications for better access to the European market of 500 million consumers to add to the growing Asian market that enjoys premium food and wine from Australia. 

“Our food exporters can only see the benefit in the latest moves from the EU to say stiff cheddar to us. After all, it’s quality that matters and as Shakespeare said: ‘What’s in a name?’ ”


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