What do Moet & Chandon champagne, Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee, and "Thai Khao Hom Mali Thung Kula Rong-Hai" jasmine rice have in common?
They all have geographical indications (GIs) which indicate a place of origin that confers upon them a unique quality.
GIs assure the quality, reputation or other unique traits of a product from a specific location. Both natural and human factors come into play, including the climate and soil of a specific region, traditional production processes and the cultural milieu.
A Bill was tabled in Parliament recently to amend the GIs Act, a law passed in 1998 because of Singapore's obligations to protect GIs under the treaty called Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (Trips), 1994. Like copyrights or patents, GIs are intellectual property.
Attributing quality to agricultural products with the name of the place of production is an old practice used worldwide. Thus there is basmati rice from the Himalayan foothills, Mandeling coffee from Sumatra and Sarawak pepper of Malaysia.
So human-food-place indications of quality are long established. What is new is recognising them as intellectual property to be protected to prevent their misuse. Imitations using a genuine GI or substitutes using a name that sounds like one mislead consumers into paying premium prices for inauthentic quality.
GI registries are to be found mainly in the European Union (EU), which has more than 700 GI food products. Though Trips encouraged member-states to negotiate a global or multilateral GI registry, most countries led by the United States have resisted it since 1997.
The US wants anyone claiming infringement to prove that consumers are confused by the alleged infringer's use of a GI or near-enough name.
The EU registry system confers near-absolute protection and the owner of a registered GI does not have to prove that consumers are likely to be confused by the faux product. Also, once registered, a GI cannot become a generic word.
Thus basmati rice, if registered here as a GI, cannot be used as a generic name for a type of long grain rice if it is not grown in the Himalaya foothills.
What has all of this got to do with Singapore?
Businesses will soon be able to register GI goods that they import to sell here. Consumers can be assured they get the genuine article if it has a GI mark registered here.
Now, without a registry, a GI owner would have to sue an alleged infringer to get justice.
With the registry, the authorities could carry out intelligence-led enforcement sweeps inside Singapore and at its borders.
So the registry will protect the interests of (mainly those EU) communities that own GIs. The reason that Singapore agreed to do this was, among other things, to get the EU to sign a bilateral free trade agreement last year.
GIs are separate and distinct from brands. All goods with GIs also have their own brands. Whereas brands are owned by individual producers, the GI mark is owned in common with other certified producers from the same locale and community.
For example, Moet & Chandon and Philipponnat are distinct brands but both can display "champagne" as their GI mark because both are from France's historic north-eastern province of Champagne, now part of the administrative region of Champagne-Ardenne.
Enforcing GIs benefits the producer who can charge a premium for his goods. For example, a bottle of Moet & Chandon Brut Imperial may cost $85 compared to a bottle of Prosecco Spumante, an Italian sparkling wine, for $24.
Such premium prices lie in what GIs imply. Within the EU, only bubbly made from black Pinot noir and Pinot Meunier grapes and white Chardonnay grapes grown in specifically designated plots in the Champagne region can be sold as "champagne", whatever the brand.
Or, take Parmigiano-Reggiano, the hard, grainy "king of cheeses", with its complex flavour reminiscent of fresh citrus. Great eaten on its own, it is also shaved over cooked food like pasta or uncooked food like salads.
It is produced only in the hills of specific Italian provinces by artisans who still use traditional methods going back 800 years. Only milk from dairy cows fed local forage is used to make it.
Since 1934, the Consortium for Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese, the association of local producers, has formalised the traditional steps used to make the cheese and fixed the geographical boundaries of the production area.
Only about 450 cheese makers qualify to sell their products as Parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses, and each wheel is examined by consortium experts before being given the official mark.
Parmesan is the English translation of Parmigiano-Reggiano, so if you ask for "parmesan cheese" in Britain (which is in the EU), you will get authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
But while the Americans also use the word "parmesan", their product is anything but. Their powdered "Kraft 100 per cent grated parmesan cheese" isn't the same.
What production communities worry about most is their GIs becoming generic. If that happens, they lose international protection under Trips.
For example, the EU strictly enforces the "champagne" GI within its borders and any bubbly not made in the Champagne area must, by law, be labelled as "sparkling wine" only, whether the producer is located in the EU or not.
But people outside the EU consider any sparkling wine "champagne". Arguing it has become a generic word, the US refuses to recognise "champagne" as a GI, all to protect its own makers.
Wines and cheeses do dominate GI lists. In fact, Trips oddly even confers special GI protection for wines per se. Activists now argue that traditional handicraft should receive GIs too to help less developed nations economically.
GIs may well protect and even preserve traditional ways of manufacturing a product but they do not assure market success. For example, the EU wine industry has been losing global market share to New World wine producers who have won over consumers in many countries.
Large-scale production, competitive pricing, clever retailing through supermarket and hypermarket chains, with astute marketing, have seen New World wines succeed globally.
In the last decade or so, EU wine makers who relied on GIs for protection have responded by raising prices. But consumers found that other wines were just as good, so they refused to pay the premium prices of EU wines with GI marks.
GIs may matter, but a good business model matters even more.
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