Protecting Terroir – 25 Magazine: Issue 3

Protecting Terroir – 25 Magazine: Issue 3

WWhat makes a food product unique to one region, and how do countries in the EU and elsewhere protect them in law?

RUTH HEGARTY examines the pros and cons of geographical indications in Issue 3 of 25 Magazine.

Prosciutto di Parma or “Parma ham” bears a brand, the outline of a crown with the word “PARMA” inside it, given to it by the consorzio (or producer consortium) who oversee its production and marketing. On the packaged product you will also see another mark, a red and yellow circular logo depicting a rural scene surrounded by the words “Protected Designation of Origin”, or PDO for short. The PDO certificate is one of three protected food name schemes under the EU’s food quality policy.

Its certificate indicates that the name of the product, with its geographical indication (GI) – in this case Parma – has been given protection under European law because it is proven to have inherent links to the area in which it was produced, and unique characteristics linked to that place.

A product that bears the protected name Parma ham or Prosciutto di Parma must meet specific requirements: it is produced only from the hind leg of certain heritage breed pigs reared to specified standards, and the hams must be produced in the area around Parma in the Emilia- Romagna region of Italy using only salt, air, and time – absolutely no additives or preservatives may be added. The production standards and methods, including length of aging (400-plus days), are prescriptive but the key aspect of its protection is something less tangible – terroir. The producers of Prosciutto di Parma believe that what makes it truly unique and special, what gives it the characteristics that make it stand alone, is the “sweet, dry and aromatic” mountain air of Emilia-Romagna. This, coupled with local expertise developed since Roman times, means the product cannot be replicated elsewhere and only ham produced in the region should bear the name Parma ham. This geographical indication protects the producers in the region and guarantees the quality of the product.

What are GIs?

A geographical indication on a food, drink or agricultural product is a name that indicates the geographical origin of the product, but also infers some quality, characteristic or reputation attributable to that origin. Such names indicate not only where a product is from, but also highlight a strong link between the product and its place of production, since its qualities depend on that place.

The EU regulations for geographical indications, introduced in 1992, owe a lot to older French and other Southern European member states’ systems and were heavily influenced by their basis in the concept of “terroir.” The EU has three certificates in place to protect the quality of regional traditional and specialty foods. Protected designation of origin (PDO), the recognition given to Parma ham and products such as champagne, is the most stringent of these, implying the strongest possible link to the area. It is for products whose quality or characteristics are “essentially or exclusively due to the particular geographical environment with its inherent natural and human factors, and the production, processing and preparation of which takes place in the defined geographical area.”

Protected geographical indication (PGI) is more flexible, requiring character, reputation or quality “attributable” to its geographical origin and where some, but not all, stages of production must take place in that area. Tuscan olive oil and Scotch Lamb, for example, have PGI status. The final certification, traditional speciality guaranteed (TSG), is not in fact a geographical indication, but follows similar principles. It does not include a specific place of origin, but aims to differentiate products produced using defined traditional production methods. Spain’s Jamón Serrano (Serrano ham) is an example of a product that carries the TSG indication.

In other countries, including the US, geographical indications can be protected through the trademark system and are viewed more as intellectual property than as schemes for protecting food quality – therefore they are treated similarly to brands. Products protected in this way in the US include Florida oranges, Idaho potatoes, and Napa Valley wines.

Beyond the US and the EU, other well-recognized geographical indications include Darjeeling tea, Café de Colombia, and tequila, which is in fact a regionally specific name protected by the Mexican government for a drink produced in the area around the city of Tequila. Each of these draw on a variety of different legal tools and certification schemes within their own countries and internationally in order to ensure that other products do not trade on their reputation.

A Producer-Led Approach

In the case of the EU, when it introduced this registration system in the 1990s, it argued its primary goal was consumer protection, ensuring consumers were not duped into buying an inferior product bearing a recognized name. In reality though, the drive for this came not from consumers but from producers, and in particular from the countries in the south of Europe that had a tradition of protection of geographical indications and a strong system of producer groups behind them. France introduced laws for designations of origin on wine in 1905, which developed into the appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC, the French term for controlled designation of origin) system. Spain, Italy, and Portugal all had similar systems in place. Products that were registered tended to have consortia or cooperatives of producers behind them, who would set out the standards and restrictions under which a product could qualify for the name. This producer-led system and the existing structures of cooperation and agreement on standards are key to the success of collective geographical indications.

Indeed, it has ensured that to this day, 25 years after their introduction, the Mediterranean countries of the EU still have by far the greatest numbers of registered products; Italy has around 300, and France and Spain each have well over 200. Germany and the UK lag behind with under 100 protected products each, stemming from the fact that they had no national legal system for registration of protected geographical names and no tradition of producer cooperatives working together to set a standard and promote their product. Without this strong producer-led framework in place, it is difficult to see other EU countries ever catching up with the southern member states.

Benefits of Protection

In theory, protection of the geographical indication provides a strong, recognized brand for producers to trade on, while providing the consumer with a guarantee of the quality and standard of the product. They often allow producers to command a higher price for their product or enter more specialized markets.

For the most part they are used to protect traditional or “artisan” products/ production methods, but they by no means apply only to small-scale production; the 150-plus producers who belong to the Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma, for example, produce over nine million hams annually, which are exported globally. What the protected designation of origin certification aims to do is protect the livelihood of those producers and their traditional production methods by preventing other products trading on the reputation they have built over generations, while giving the consumer a guarantee of quality.

Generally speaking, protected geographical indications can provide similar protection to a trademark, but with the advantage that the name does not belong to one single enterprise. In fact, often they prohibit a single enterprise from owning the name and therefore can protect traditional product names (or geographical designations) that have become synonymous with quality from being appropriated by individual companies. They also do not preclude new entrants from using the name; as long as a producer adheres to the standards set out in the certificate application, they cannot be prevented from branding their product with the geographical indication. This applies irrespective of the legal tool in use.

The Challenges

Geographical indications are not without their broader challenges and controversies either. The variety of different legal tools and approaches used to protect geographical indications in different jurisdictions, stemming from different legal traditions and frameworks, provides for different levels of protection and recognition of geographical indications. The lack of a unified international approach to geographical indications hugely complicates what seems at first to be a simple and effective way of protecting traditional food heritage.

In order to have their geographical indication enforced internationally, countries either have to register it via systems in other jurisdictions or negotiate either in collective trade negotiations or in bilateral agreements for recognition of their protected names in other states. While there are many international agreements in place for mutual recognition of geographical indications, differing attitudes towards them have made them a point of contention in international trade negotiations, in particular between the EU and the US, which sees the European system as protectionist and has challenged it with the World Trade Organization. Despite this, the EU continues not only to protect and promote traditional food and agricultural products throughout the member states using these indications, but has gradually expanded their protection through negotiation of many bilateral agreements with importing countries, which means in turn the EU will often agree to recognize and enforce protected geographical indications on specific products from those countries imported into the EU.

They have gone a step further in fact and opened up the opportunity to products from non-EU countries to avail of protection under the EU system. The first such product was Café de Colombia, registered as a PGI in 2007 by the Federación Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia (FNC). The Café de Colombia example perfectly highlights how complicated and onerous protecting a geographical indication can be, with the FNC using a number of different certification schemes, quality marks, and trademark laws to protect the name across the globe. But again, this relied on a strong existing national framework and a grower-led group with an established production standard. The FNC states that it sought the registration in order to “promote and defend their origin in international markets.”

In an era of free trade and dominance of large corporations and brands, geographical indications can be a powerful tool in the defense of traditional food heritage. Where they are properly promoted and enforced, they have been shown to be effective in creating niche markets and increasing margins for producers. They provide some leveling of the playing field, ensuring that long-established reputations cannot be appropriated.

Yet geographical indications are far from straightforward; registrations can be long and bureaucratic processes, individual countries must have the resources and determination to back them and negotiate their recognition at international level, and their future remains unclear as they are not favored in big trade negotiations.

What is of great value, however, is the framework that exists behind the most successful geographical indications: that producer-led cooperative system that ensures that traditional production methods are fiercely defended and kept alive, that a product can scale up and still remain truly artisan, and that something as elusive as terroir continues to be valued.

RUTH HEGARTY is Founder of egg&chicken, a food project management and consultancy agency based in Ireland. She also serves as Head of Community for Chef Network, a professional network for chefs on the island of Ireland.

GIs vs Trademarks: The Ethiopia Case

Although they have their merits, geographical indications are not practical for all producers, and all countries.

In the early 2000s, the Ethiopian government sought protection for some of its most recognizable coffees – Harrar, Sidamo, and Yirgacheffe – opting to use a range of intellectual property rights (IPRs) to protect ownership of their names and prevent misappropriation.

The effort was led by the Ethiopian Fine Coffee Stakeholder Committee – a consortium of cooperatives, exporters, and the Ethiopian Intellectual Property Office (EIPO) – which agreed that the best course of action was to protect the coffee’s commercial origin through the registration of trademarks. Geographical indications were not a practical solution for a country where coffee is grown by approximately 600,000 independent farmers on more than four million plots of land, the committee argued.

While Ethiopia’s application to register Yirgacheffe as a trademark was approved by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), applications for Harrar and Sidamo were rejected in 2005 and 2006 following objections from the National Coffee Association (NCA). The NCA argued that both names were too generic and therefore ineligible for registration under US trademark law.

Starbucks Coffee Corporation offered to help the EIPO establish a certification system that would enable Ethiopian farmers to market their coffee as geographical indications, but the Stakeholder Committee held firm, reiterating that such a system would be impracticable and too expensive in Ethiopia. A resolution was later found, and Starbucks signed voluntary trademark licensing agreements acknowledging Ethiopia’s ownership of the Harrar, Sidamo, and Yirgacheffe names. A trademark for Harrar was granted by the USPTO in 2006, and Sidamo followed in 2008. Trademarks have also been registered elsewhere, including the EU.

Support our mission by joining SCA, a nonprofit trade association, and receive a complimentary subscription to the print version of 25 as a part of your membership:
Already an SCA member? Claim your complimentary subscription of 25 Magazine’s print edition at