A number of food producers and organizations from multiple countries launched the Consortium for Common Food Names, an international initiative that seeks to stop efforts to restrict the use of generic food names, including such efforts by the European Commission.

The new consortium opposes any attempt to monopolize generic names that have become part of the public domain, such as parmesan, feta, provolone, bologna, salami and many others, as well as terms used by winemakers such as "classic", "vintage", "fine" and "superior". The consortium will seek to foster the adoption of an appropriate model that protects legitimate GIs like "Parmigiano Reggiano" while preserving the right of all producers to use common names like "parmesan".

The consortium is not opposed to proper geographical indications (GIs), like "Camembert de Normandie" and "Brie de Meaux" cheeses from France, and "Clare Island Salmon" from Ireland. For some specialized products such as these, made in a specific region, it has made sense for the European Commission (EC) to protect the regional name to help preserve the unique nature of that product. In fact, products from other parts of the world - such as Washington State Apples, Idaho Potatoes, Valle de Colchagua wine from Chile, or Thai Jasmine Rice - may also benefit from similar protection. The consortium supports these types of terms as a tool to promote distinctive products.

"No one country or entity should own common food names," said Jaime Castaneda, executive director of the new initiative, and senior vice president of trade policy at the U.S. Dairy Export Council. "If such efforts are successful, consumers will no longer recognize many of their favorite foods. Producers around the world will be forced to consider relabeling potentially billions of dollars' worth of food products.

"Arguing that any one group should have an exclusive right to use such names is like claiming that only Italians should be permitted to use the term 'pizza'," he said.

Many well-known foods trace their origins to Europe, but thanks to decades of trade and the emigration of individual food artisans, these products are now made and enjoyed throughout the world. Over time, this has greatly increased the popularity of European varietals like parmesan and salami, to the commercial benefit of European and non-European producers and consumers alike.

In fact, many producers in countries throughout Europe and around the world have been making these foods for decades, if not centuries.

"Italian, Swiss and Danish immigrants brought to our land their knowledge, traditions and names of food products," said Miguel Paulón, president of the Argentine Dairy Industry Federation. "Many of the cheese names we use have become protected GIs in Europe, despite the fact that these names were established here for more than a century as generic names, or have become part of trademarks that identify local producers. Moreover, several of those terms were also adopted many years ago by the international food standards Codex program."

Dollars, cents, fairness, choice

"At least as much feta and parmesan cheese are made outside Europe as within it," said Errico Auricchio, chairman of the consortium. "Production of provolone is more than 15 times greater outside Europe." Auricchio, whose family has been making Italian-style cheeses since 1877, is the president of BelGioioso Cheese Inc., Green Bay, Wis.

"This is not just a question of dollars and cents, but of fairness and choice," said Auricchio. "These generic names are in the public domain. The logical path is to label foods so consumers can choose what they want - whether it's a food from the valleys of France, Italy or Wisconsin. What matters is that they can choose."

The European Commission began attempting to expand the system of geographical indications under World Trade Organization negotiations in the Doha round. But as those efforts stalled, the Commission has started inserting naming restrictions within free trade agreements, as seen in current negotiations with several Western Hemisphere and Asian countries.

The consortium will work to inform consumer groups, farmer associations, manufacturers, and agricultural, trade and intellectual property officials of the damage that will be caused in their own countries if efforts to restrict the use of common food names go unchecked. It will also work with these groups to protect common food names in domestic regulations and international agreements. Importantly, it will work to develop a clear and reasonable scope of protection for GIs by working with leaders in agriculture, trade and intellectual property rights; and foster adoption of high-standard and model GI guidelines throughout the world.

"For over 60 years in Costa Rica and Central America, our producers and processors have, in good faith, used generic names to describe various types of cheese such as edam, cheddar, gouda, emmenthal and parmesan, among others," said Jorge Manuel E. Gonzalez, president of the National Chamber of Milk Producers of Costa Rica. "On behalf of producers and industry partners, the Chamber has struggled to continue using these names in the present and the future, so we are very proud to belong to the consortium and to continue this struggle in partnership with many producers and industries in the world."

"The European Commission is quietly making inroads in this area, so the new consortium intends to shine a spotlight on this activity, and we encourage others to join the effort at this critical time," said Auricchio.