Europe's Unpalatable Attitude

Where would America be without Europe to show it how to eat? For centuries, Europe has instructed primitive New Worlders on the details of culinary appreciation: the superiority of prosciutto to plain old sliced ham, the merits of clarified butter over melted margarine. Now, though, the European Union wants to take its stewardship a step further. It wants to protect Americans from their own undiscriminating palates by ensuring what they eat is not only good but also genuine. Genuinely European, that is.

At issue is a technical-sounding matter known as "geographical indications" (GIs) for food products. Under the World Trade Organisation's intellectual property agreements, WTO members agreed to try to protect names indicating the source and quality of foods. The EU has been busily making this idea a reality on its home ground. Europe has hundreds of protected place names. Just last week, the European Commission told Danish producers of a certain soft cheese they may not call their product "feta"; that right is reserved to the Greeks. Within Europe, you may not sell Asiago cheese unless it is made in Asiago. L¸beck marzipan must come from L¸beck.

Not satisfied with this effort, the EU is now eager to conquer fresh territory. It wants to spread GIs to the US and the rest of the world - so badly that it is getting in the way of a more important WTO task: liberalisation of agriculture markets. In the broadest interpretation, such a regime would mean that certain well loved US brand products would disappear from supermarket shelves. Anything labelled Parmesan cheese, trade lawyers argue, would have to come directly from Parma, instead of from Kraft's familiar green tube.

But there are arguments against a US surrender. The first is the most obvious. While the EU plan is culturally protective, it is also economically protectionist. You cannot blame Europe for trying. But the WTO is supposed to be about ending protectionism, not institutionalising it.

The second argument is that the US already has a system to preserve the geographic identities of food. Individual companies from Europe or trade representations from specific localities may seek certification from the US Patent and Trademark Office; Europeans also have a right to defend their mark in court. The district of Roquefort in France won the right to the name; everybody else is stuck with "blue cheese".

Adding a supranational regime to police trademarks is unnecessary and would damage America's local culture of civil law. It can also make for some truly ugly law suits, as beer trademark fights in Europe are showing. It is hard to imagine the "King of Beers" will surrender without a titanic battle to an ordinance or rule that says beer labelled "Budweiser" must come from Ceske Budejovice in the Czech Republic and not Anheuser-Busch.

This brings us to the biggest problem. The Brussels position reflects the dreamy presumption that European place names are Europe's exclusive property, even when they are attached to a food. This, alas for Europe, is no longer the case, at least in the US. The linguistic and legal reality of the New World is that many place names have long since become generic descriptions of food preparation methods (French fries, hamburgers). In US English, "parmesan" does not mean "from Parma"; it means "grated".

To assume Europe can recapture those names is to assume that the old continent looms larger in the US mind than it does. It is also condescending to suppose Americans need a label to tell a "Bud" from a Bohemian lager. Or, to put the story another way: European cities now feature the occasional New York deli. But it would be pathetic if officials from New York state's capital, Albany, tried to win back the mark for Empire State vendors by saying customers might be confused about the shop owners' origins.

Last of all comes the question of whether protectionism is necessary for European products to survive in the US. In fact, it is not. The US market for European gourmet imports may be small relative to the market for Chuck E. Cheese lunches and Stouffer's TV dinners but it is still substantial. Any number of Americans are willing to spend double the money or more to pay for gourmet foods, even pain poil‚ne delivered express from Paris. US producers fear such competition: witness their eagerness to ban blue cheese on the grounds that it might contain listeria.

In fact, there is a strange sort of insecurity in the idea that the US will vanquish the old continent if it does not resort to protectionism or extreme interpretations of property rights. After all, while the military or economic superiority of the European model may be debatable, the superiority of Europe's gastronomic model is not. Why not let the food fight continue without protection? May the best cheese win.

© Copyright 2002 Financial Times

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