European members of parliament are due to vote today on proposed changes to the bloc's geographical indications (GI) system in a bid to comply with a World Trade Organisation decision.
The bloc's GI system reserves the use of the specified names to designate the origin and geographical location where agricultural products and foodstuffs are produced or processed.
The protection can also refer to specific conditions relating to processing, preparation or recipe as defined by the producers.
A WTO decision last June found that parts of the EU's GI rules serve to unfairly bar outside competitors from the market. The WTO finding was made after the US and other countries complained that the GI rules were a form of trade protectionism.
MEPs will vote today on two measures under the GI system, which is broken down into classifications on protected designations of origin (PDO), protected geographical indication (PGI), and traditional speciality guaranteed (TSG) food and drink products.
PDOs, such as granted to Roquefort cheese, must be produced, processed and prepared in a given geographical area using a recognised, specified method. PGIs, such as Newcastle Brown Ale, require a link between at least one stage of production, processing or preparation and the region, place or country of origin.
TSGs, such as the Belgian cherry-flavoured beer Kriek, highlight the traditional composition or a traditional method of processing or preparation of a product.
Under the Commission's new proposals non-EU companies will no longer have to apply for registration under the system through their national governments.
They will be able to register their specialty foods directly with the European Commission, reducing the time needed for the application and approval process.
The proposed changes would also get rid of the requirement that non-EU applicants must be from countries that make equivalent guarantees on their home market and for third countries to give EU GIs the same protection.
Parliament's agriculture committee is recommending that Parliament approve the Commission's proposals.
The committee calls on the European Council, the bloc's highest desision making body, to "make only those amendments to [the regulation] which are necessary in light of the ruling of the WTO, and to debate without pressure of time those elements of the Commission proposal which are more far-reaching".
It also suggests publishing a register on the Internet, and to clarify the current labelling system by introducing colour-codes for different types of protection.
Although accepting the role private inspection bodies to ensure producers comply with the system, the committee was concerned that giving member states the role of registering PDOs, PGIs and TSGs would complicate matters.
Therefore, the committee called on the Commission to examine "whether a specific agency or one of the existing Community agencies would be better able to ensure that the Community register is administered in an efficient and uniform way".
The committee also wants to maintain a clear difference between PDO, PGI and TSG labels and the actual origin of the product itself.
Under current legislation, a non-EU party can apply for protection of a product from one of its own regions, and therefore gain access to the Community protection system.
"This can cause consumers to think that the product in question was produced in the EU," the committee stated.
The report therefore suggests that "the place of origin and processing of agricultural products and foodstuffs marketed under a registered name should be indicated on the label".
In an interview earlier this month with FoodProductionDaily.com Michael Mann, the Commission's spokesperson for agriculture and rural development, told FoodProductionDaily.com that he does not expect the changes to disadvantage EU companies.
EU companies will still go through the lengther process of first gaining the approval of their national governments before the application is passed on to the Commission for final registration and protection.
"I don't think this is an issue," he said. "Although it might be a little more labourous the end result is going to be the same."
The Commission also proposes to simplify the registration process and clarify the role of member states in making applications. The administrative body plans to publish an outline of all the necessary information needed for registration, information and inspection purposes that will be needed in a well-defined "single document" application.
The proposals also seek to promote the GI labeling system and the use of the EU logos as a means of gaining consumer recoginition.
The changes relate to the GI rules governing agricultural products, such as feta cheese, specialty olive oils and meats. The EU set up the GI system in 1996 as a means of providing protection for producers making specialty and traditional foods that are linked to specific regions.
Mariann Fischer Boel, the commissioner for agriculture and rural development said the GI system is a cornerstone of the EU's quality policy. The changes must be approved by the EU's Council and Parliament to meet the WTO deadline of April 2006.
"The Commission intends to implement a more efficient and fully WTO-compatible registration procedure for special products of this type," she stated.
The number of regional and speciality products for which denominations are registered under EU quality schemes now stands at 720. Another 300 applications are under consideration.
Protected names that have gained GI status include those for 150 cheeses, 160 meat and meat-based products, 150 fresh or processed fruits or vegetables and 80 types of olive oil.
The EU wants international recognition for the system and has applied to WTO. That application is being contested by the US, which claims the system is nothing but another form of trade protection.
In their complaint about the system before the WTO the US and others alleged that the EU's GI system discriminated against non-EU producers and therefore contravened an agreement which provides for equal treatment.
Second, the US expressed concern about the impact of GIs on prior trade mark rights, as GIs protect the name of the product itself and also linguistic variations.
In its report, the WTO panel ruled that the GI Regulation was inconsistent with TRIPs on several counts, including that the reciprocity conditions did not treat non-EU companies equally and that it restricts prior trade mark owners from filing protests against registered GIs. They also complained about the requirement that only governments rather than individuals can object to registrations.
The WTO recommended that the EU amend the regulation so the anti-trading conditions do not to apply to the procedures for registration of GIs located in other WTO members.
The Commissions proposals must first be approved by the bloc's Council of Ministers and by the parliament. The WTO will then examine it again if the US and Australia file further protests.
Separate proposals relating to WTO rulings on the classification of spirit drinks under the GI system have also been submitted by the Commission.
The draft defines a policy for spirit drinks based on three product categories rooted in the current product definitions.