Australia’s Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment Simon Birmingham said the public consultation process on Geographical Indications (GI), which opens today, would give industry a three-month opportunity to comment.
GI designation is intended by the EU to protect traditional, localized products and guarantee a standard quality.
In response, the Australian government is looking for public comment on the plans, with the country’s National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) already stating it is unimpressed by the prospect.
But Minister Birmingham said agreeing to GIs was not a done deal, and that, “Australians can be confident that we will drive a very hard bargain – as we always do – to achieve an overall agreement that delivers more opportunity for Australian farmers and businesses. Ultimately, we will only do this deal if overall it is in Australia’s interests to do so.”
The EU is Australia’s second largest trading partner, and in 2008 Australia agreed to a wine trade agreement that covered some EU GI restrictions on terms such as Champagne, port and sherry.
The EU’s demands include any direct or indirect commercial use of a GI name for comparable products, meaning an Australian producer could not market a ‘Feta-style’ cheese or ‘Camembert-like’ product.
While many of the cheeses aren’t household names, others are, notably Camembert de Normandie, Feta, Brie, white and blue Stilton, Mozzarella, Provolone, Gorgonzola, Parmiggiano Reggiano and Gruyère. However, Camembert on its own (i.e. without the Normandie) would not be protected.
In total, there are 56 cheeses on the list, as well as two butters and a cream product.
The NFF said it is dismayed the Australian Government has taken the next step towards banning the use of common food names in Australia, such as Feta, Brie, and Camembert.
"Australian farmers will be worse off should the Government ultimately agree to the EU's demands that we extend protection for geographical indications (GIs) to food and others wines and spirits," NFF CEO Tony Mahar said.
"FTA negotiations are supposed to open markets and liberalize trade between FTA partners. All we have heard from the EU since these negotiations began was that agriculture was a 'sensitive' sector for the EU, and Australia would need to agree to extend protection to EU GIs if we wanted an FTA."
Mahar said if the Government ‘went soft’ on GIs it would be a two-pronged blow for farmers.
"Not only are we told new access for 'sensitive' agricultural products will be difficult, and that we're not going to get any new access for sugar, dairy, small goods and other products, we're now expected to give up the use of common food names and the sales that go with them?"
The NFF said that for years, Australian farmers ‘have suffered from EU protectionist policies, including their policy on GIs. The FTA presents a critical opportunity to level the playing field.’
Mahar said, "Australia's system of trade mark protection can provide the same, if not better, protection for specialized products. We don't need a new, separate and tax-payer funded system to protect European product names.
"The Australian Government should not consider any extension of GI protection without a guaranteed commitment from the EU for exceptional market access for all Australian agricultural products without any exclusions.
"If the EU truly believes their rhetoric on free trade, this outcome will benefit European farmers and consumers as much as Australian farmers.”
However, Minister Birmingham said, “There are enormous opportunities for Australian farmers and businesses if we can improve their access to markets across the EU. The EU boasts more than 500 million consumers and, even with existing trade restrictions, it is already Australia’s third largest export market.
“Whilst we understand the importance the EU places on geographical indications, our priority is ensuring our farmers and businesses can get better market access and be more competitive in the EU.
“This consultation process will help us better understand the views of Australian industry, which will assist us in our ongoing discussions with the EU on why their requested protection of certain terms will not be acceptable in some cases.”