We must fight over Manuka honey

A GI registration can help stop copycats from riding the coattails of local producers who have worked so hard to establish the reputation of the local product they are promoting, whether it is cheese, processed meat, or fruit of high quality.

Australia hasn’t copied the European GI System, except for wine. In Europe, the terms “Roquefort,” ‘Kalamata’ Feta, and many others cannot be used to describe products that are not from Europe or do not meet detailed specifications.

Australia does not have laws that state that a certain variety of apples must be picked in a specific location and at a certain time or that Tasmanian Whisky must only contain Tasmanian ingredients.

Due to the lack of prescriptive legislation, producers can use terms that are protected as GIs in other countries. They claim they are generic here. Australian cheese makers are, for example, free to use “Feta.” In Europe, the word “Feta” can only be used for cheeses made according to a specific recipe by producers in a certain region of Greece.

Geographic indicators are also valuable to consumers.

When a GI has been declared, strict product specifications are also required. For example, for a GI on cheese, these include milk quality and the processing method. This ensures that consumers receive what they bargained for and are protected. The pro-GI lobbyists claim that the GI system protects consumers from deceptive origin branding because it is a simple regulatory model.

Wine is protected

Australia has adopted GIs in the wine industry. Champagne is the most famous example of a GI. This region in France produces sparkling wine. The term is officially registered as a trademark. This means that nobody can use the name Champagne until the wine is made using grapes from the Champagne region and is produced according to the prescribed production method.

In the 1990s, we introduced a system for registering wine GIs following a recently renewed treaty that gave us a better access to European Wine Markets.

Before this, we could use Champagne as a descriptive term to refer to sparkling wines in general (including Australian ones), rather than one that originated in France. Both European and Australian wine region names have been registered and are reserved for producers of the respective regions. Champagne, Burgundy and Chablis are among the most popular wine regions in Australia and Europe.

We need to have a debate

The GIs are a source of tension between Europe and Australia, and they will probably come up again during the ongoing free trade negotiations.

The Europeans want to regain a monopoly on geographical terms even if they are now purely descriptive for some countries. This would include, for example, the removal of Australian feta, gorgonzola, and parmesan cheeses, as well as local Valencia oranges. The style or variety may be copied, but not the names.

The free trade agreement that Europe recently concluded with Canada partially achieves this.

This brings us back to Manuka Honey – New Zealand argues that because the name is so closely associated with NZ, any other country would be better off calling their honey something different, even if they are identical products.

NZ associations and producers have done a great job in promoting Manuka Honey to consumers. The problem is that Manuka honey was named after a specific tree or bush. Tea trees are also common in Australia.

Why, then, if an Australian producer makes honey using bees who have foraged locally on tea trees, shouldn’t it be called “Manuka Honey?” It is the same tree, and it has exactly the same characteristics as Manuka honey. Could the Australian honey be better and have more health benefits than NZ honey? What should Australian honey be called if it is not Manuka Honey?

This type of problem can be avoided by implementing a GI registration system. Who gets to use a geographic term and what the basis is for that decision can be sorted before it arises. The system may work for Australia, given its reputation for green and clean food. We could tell consumers the “backstory” of our regional food and send clear messages to them around the globe.

Registration of GIs will not work for every farming community or product. This could cause upheaval to those who are currently making local versions of specialties from abroad or in areas where trademarks are already present. For some farmers, it could be the catalyst for a collaborative effort to ensure that the future value of local food is protected.

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