Australians producers must prepare for a cheese and ham war with Europe

A food fight is brewing to protect names such as prosciutto, brie and parmesan.
A food fight is brewing to protect names such as prosciutto, brie and parmesan. Photo: Justin McManus

Australian producers of brie, feta, parmesan, kalamata olives, Puy lentils, balsamic vinegar and prosciutto must gear up for a battle to rival the "champagne wars" of the '90s.

Talks are beginning with the European Union over the use of geographical indications (GI). Although the EU states that it only wants to protect genuine place names, and not the generic product names associated with them (such as prosciutto di Parma and camembert de Normandie), the Union's tactics in the fight over prosecco suggest this is only the beginning.

Australian-made camembert may well have to find a new name.
Australian-made camembert may well have to find a new name. Photo: iStock

A decade ago, Italy was worried about others muscling in on their prosecco sales. The EU responded by renaming the grape variety "glera", reversing centuries of use, and made prosecco an official Italian GI (instead of prosecco di Valdobbiadene and prosecco di Treviso). We stopped this taking effect in Australia on the grounds that prosecco was a grape variety long before it was a GI.

But moves by the EU to prevent Australian wine producers using more grape varietal names connected with Italian wine-producing areas suggest Australian food producers must be prepared for future attempts to expand GI protection to words such as prosciutto, camembert and brie.

If successful, this would be disastrous for Australian producers and consumers. Under GI rules, even descriptions that clearly state the origin of the goods such as "Australian feta" or "camembert-style" could be banned.

If there is no varietal name that can be used instead, and no readily understood alternative name, it is very difficult for consumers to understand what the product is. Australian "sherry" is now called "apera", for instance, and the new name has not been a resounding success.

As for fairness, trademark laws have established that a brand that becomes "generic" can be used by anyone. Examples include aspirin, escalator, granola, and hovercraft. Many of the words the EU is hoping to protect, either now or in the future, have become generic over many generations. Their ongoing use by any producer should be preserved.

Further, the EU's claims of centuries of tradition to support their GI rights aren't exactly set in stone. For example, in 2008 the French expanded the boundaries of Champagne when demand exceeded supply, and now the Spaniards are poised to allow sherry producers to use the name on non-fortified wine. A prosecco law vote in 2018 opened the way for allowing "pink prosecco", which previously could only be marketed as spumante rosato.

While it's true that Australia did very well from an EU trade deal in the 1990s to phase out wine GIs such as champagne, burgundy and port in exchange for improved market access that boosted exports, many of the terms that were phased out could be replaced with grape variety names such as chardonnay and pinot noir, which wine consumers quickly understood. Unfortunately, many of the food names in the current negotiations are not readily exchangeable.

Australian producers need to act now. Lobby your local federal MP and document when you began using a particular term (perhaps even trademark it together with your brand) in case prior use is "grandfathered". There's a food fight coming.

James Omond is a lawyer and trademark attorney who specialises in the alcoholic beverage sector.