From Welsh lamb to Scotch whisky and Stilton cheese, the protection of British geographical indications (GIs) are unlikely to cause any great headache after Brexit, although care will be needed when handling the issue in future trade talks.
The concept of GIs is designed to protect the names of specific products in order to promote their unique characteristics, linked to their geographical origin as well as to the know-how embedded in the region.
In a nutshell, it is thanks to GIs that only the dry-cured meat produced in the hills around the Italian city of Parma can legitimately bear the name of Prosciutto di Parma.
And it is also the reason why you can make champagne only if you use grapes grown in the French region of the same name.
European citizens can find these products on their supermarket shelves labelled with specific labels for local food specialities such as PDO (protected designation of origin) and PGI (protected geographical indication).
These product names are also included in the EU system of intellectual property rights, legally protecting them against imitation and misuse.
A recent Commission study that collected economic data from each of the 3,207 GI-protected products from across the EU found that GIs represent a sales value of more than €74 billion.
A total of 65 British foodstuffs are registered as GIs, including livestock such as Welsh lamb and Gloucestershire old spots pork, as well as Stilton cheese, Scotch whisky, and Jersey Royal potatoes.
As with many other things, Brexit will partially change the situation.
Agri-food and drink products whose names are protected by the EU as geographical indications (GIs) offer a “clear economic benefit” for producers in terms of marketing and increased sales, according to a study published by the European Commission on Monday (20 April).
What will change
The issue of GIs was addressed in the section of the EU-UK withdrawal agreement devoted to intellectual property.
In particular, Article 54 reads that all EU geographical indications already registered in the EU by 31 December 2020 (the “stock”) remain protected in the UK.
“All the product names that were protected under the EU scheme before the end of the transition period will remain protected across the UK,” a spokesperson from the UK’s department for environment, food and rural affairs (DEFRA) told EURACTIV.
UK producers will continue to have access to the EU GI system and can apply for the EU protection, just as any other third country producers can.
However, new GIs entered into the EU register after 1 January 2021 will be protected only inside EU territory.
This means that EU producers will have to apply to UK authorities to also obtain protection as a GI in the UK. Likewise, applicants for EU GIs pertaining to UK products will need to register their products for a UK GI first access to the EU GI scheme.
According to Iona Silverman, an intellectual property expert of the legal firm Freeths, this is the only flip side of the coin. “But this is procedural and is unlikely to cause any great headache,” she told EURACTIV.
The UK is setting up its own GI scheme to be managed by DEFRA, where the responsibilities of those producing and selling products using names protected under the schemes will remain largely unchanged.
“The new UK GIs schemes ensure that we continue to recognise and protect authentic products and recipes across the UK,” the DEFRA spokesperson said.
The agency is actively promoting the use of the new UK GI logos on products that will include aligning with existing UK food and drink promotion activity such as the “Food is GREAT” campaign.
EU products protected in the UK are also entitled to use the new UK logos if they wish, the DEFRA spokesperson continued.
The enormous tradition and diversity in African agricultural products may benefit from the use of the intellectual property tool for food protection that Europeans have been held most dear.
Northern Ireland exception
The situation is slightly different in Northern Ireland, where EU law related to geographical indications applies as a consequence of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
This means that the protection of EU geographical indications registered even after the end of the transition period will extend to Northern Ireland as well. This holds as well for the protection of GIs under EU international agreements.
This exception is justified by the fact that some Irish GI products like whisky are actually produced in both Northern Ireland and Ireland.
“It is difficult to assess other scenarios at this stage, but if different rules start to be negotiated and there will be a divergence, this will cause a bit of irregularity,” legal expert Silverman told EURACTIV.
“Northern Ireland is part of the UK: if we drive a wedge between the UK and the EU GI rules, we risk driving that wedge between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK,” she added.
Contacted by EURACTIV, a Commission source confirmed that the EU is not aware of any issues with regards to the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol in relation to geographical indications.
However, together with customs and trade facilitation, GIs are always sure to hit a nerve during trade talks.
“GIs are a big point in trade talks,” said Silverman, highlighting reports that there has been some disagreement about the exact interpretation of the withdrawal agreement on this point.
“It’s not a stumbling block, but an issue on the table. My understanding is that the UK is looking to negotiate looser rules. Clearly, both the UK government and the EU will be seeking to maximise their respective gains,” she concluded.
[Edited by Josie Le Blond]