Bursting prosecco’s bubble: What GI law changes could mean for local producers

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This article was first published in FMCG Business July 2020. 

Free Trade Agreement negotiations between New Zealand and the European Union (EU) have asked for the recognition and protection of a list of EU geographical indications (GIs) in New Zealand to be considered for wines, spirits, beers and foodstuffs. While the New Zealand government’s public consultation process has now ended, across the Tasman battles are still being fought over such contentious issues.

GIs are words that are associated with certain characteristics, reputations or qualities of goods that are directly attributable to a geographic origin. Commonly known examples include ‘Champagne’ and ‘Bordeaux’, both of which indicate wines from particular regions of France. The connection between a product and a geographic origin may be due to natural factors, like terroir, or human factors like the traditional means of production.

New Zealand’s current GI regulatory framework is consistent with the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (the TRIPS Agreement), which provides internationally agreed minimum standards for GI protection. The interests of the consumer and the interests of the producer are constantly debated in relation to GI’s. Standards seek to determine which terms have become generic and should be freely usable to describe products, and which are of intrinsic value to producers and should be protected.

There is an ongoing dispute between Australia and the EU as to the status of the word ‘prosecco’. The EU argues that prosecco is a GI due to its strong historical ties to wine-producing regions of northern Italy, and that under the TRIPS Agreement, the term should be prohibited for use in relation to product produced outside of the region. The production and sale of prosecco in Australia and New Zealand was approved by a World Trade Organization ruling in 2013, so a reversal of this decision could effectively halt business for local prosecco producers.

If a low threshold were applied in determining GIs for foodstuffs, relatively common foods could become GIs based on where they were historically popularised, even if there is little or no discernible difference in quality. If prosecco were to be recognised as a GI, it might likewise signify that food or beverage names with strong historic New Zealand associations are more easily able to acquire GI status.

As negotiations with the EU continue it is likely this topic will generate more debate, perhaps now even more so in a post COVID-19 world where the origin of our foodstuffs is also a political matter.