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Geographical indications: No longer just for food and drink

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On 6 October, the European Parliament adopted a non-binding resolution to expand the EU’s geographical indications to a wider range of goods. 

Now EU producers can seek to register geographical indications or protected designations of origin (GIs) for products other than food, drink and agricultural products.

What are GIs?

GIs are registered marks demonstrating a product (1) is from a particular area and (2) possesses qualities and/or a reputation because it originates from that area. Darjeeling tea, Parma ham and Blue Mountain coffee are all examples of products protected by a GI. 

Either a single producer or (more commonly) a group of producers can apply to register a GI. The applicants must:

  • define the relevant geographic area;
  • demonstrate the product originates from the specified area;
  • demonstrate the product has one or more characteristics and/or a reputation which is derived from the specific area; 
  • include standards for the production of the product; and
  • include provisions for any authorised producers to be inspected every 3 years to ensure they meet the standards.

A GI once awarded does not “belong” to the applicant; it can be used by any producer within the area who can demonstrate they produce the product in accordance with the standards. It cannot be used by anyone who does not meet the standards or produce its products within the area.

Why register a GI?

GIs protect and promote the reputation of a “local speciality” and give consumers a guarantee of both the origin and quality of the product. 

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has campaigned to raise awareness and encourage rural regions in particular to seek registrations. UK producers have been more reticent than those in other member states in registering GIs (in 2013 UK registrations accounted for only 1.4 per cent  of the GIs on the EU register, compared to 38 per cent for France and 22 per cent for Germany). 

A registered GI should help the producer to justify a higher price. A survey commissioned by the EU in 2013 found this was generally true, although the margins varied substantially depending on the type of product: premium products such as wines and oils could double in value, whereas ‘raw materials’ such as vegetables would often only see an increase of 2-3 per cent.

The proposed expansion

The GI system in the EU is currently limited to food and drink. This excludes a wide range of other products which originate from particular regions and/or use methods of production famous in a particular area (Carrera marble, Murano glass, Staffordshire pottery etc). 

In contrast, there are regimes in many other jurisdictions which do protect other forms of products. For example, in Switzerland there is legislation specifying the standards which must be met for a watch to be described as “Swiss”. 

What next?

While the resolution is good news, it has no direct legal effect. Producing and agreeing the exact form of any law is likely to be a lengthy process, particularly considering the number and variety of stakeholders. 

However, there are measures local producers can take now to protect the reputation of their products, including:

  • registering a “collective” trade mark, which is only licensed to producers who meet specific geographical and quality based criteria; 
  • ensuring local producers identify their produce in a consistent way; and
  • agreeing a set of common standards or characteristics for local products.

Whilse these measures do not equate to a GI, they may provide local producers with useful legal protection under trade mark law and the law of passing off.

Emma Sheldon is a solicitor for Hamlins LLP.

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