Opinion Who moved my cheese? EU name rules could give Australia a boost

It isn't all bad news for producers facing an EU plan to slice and dice the names of some foods, say UNSW Business School's Tim Harcourt.

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Tim Harcourt, UNSW Business School

“​When is feta no longer feta?” asks Tim Harcourt, the JW Nevile Fellow in Economics at UNSW Business School. “When the EU says feta made in Australian is not feta.”

Some Australian food and drink products would need to be re-named under strict changes proposed by the European Union under a proposed free trade deal. The EU wants Australia to stop using names 'feta’ and 'scotch whisky', and Australian feta-makers could be forced to refer to their cheese as ‘Australian feta’. Or call their cheese ‘pheta’.

With Brexit just two months away, and likely to shake up the trading landscape, the EU wants ‘Geographical Indications’ for foodstuffs and spirits as well as wine. “Cheese names like feta, gruyere, or gorgonzola could not be used by Australian cheesemakers with similar issues for Parma ham, prosciutto di Parma, Scotch steaks or Scotch or Irish whiskey. In some cases, the EU says the name ‘Camembert de Normandie’ is seeking protection but ‘camembert’ is OK,” says Professor Harcourt. “Yes, it can be confusing, and it is said there is room for negotiation as this is just a consultation phase.”

What are Geographical Indications (GIs)? Professor Harcourt explains: “GIs seek to protect the intellectual property based on a product’s place of origin. The most famous example of champagne, whereby the French wine producers from the Northern region of Champagne insisted that only they could call it ‘champagne’, so Australian wine makers had to call their bubbles ‘sparkling wine'. Similarly, Australian Burgundy – which is another region in France - became ‘pinot noir’, so the wine was named after the grape not the place of origin.”

However, Professor Harcourt, the former economist at Austrade, says there could be some large potential gains for Australian trade under the new naming rules, following the release of a list with 172 foods and 236 spirits the European Union wants protected in return for a free trade agreement with Australia. “Tasmania has some of the cleanest water in world, as well as some of the best barley growing land in Australia. So maybe ‘Tasmanian Whisky’ is a far more saleable name, than calling it ‘Scotch Whisky from Hobart’, even if the EU’s claim to ‘Scotch’ would end if the UK leaves the EU.”

Professor Harcourt believes Australian exporters will swallow GIs for better access to the European market of 500 million consumers to add to the growing Asian market that enjoys Australian premium food and wine. “Our food exporters can only see the benefit in the latest moves from the EU to say stiff cheddar to us. After all, it’s quality that matters and as Shakespeare said: ‘What’s in a name?’ ”

For further comment call Tim Harcourt on (02) 9385 3816, 0408 485 479, or email tim.harcourt@unsw.edu.au.