Senior Staff Writer, Masaru Yamada
Geographical indications (GIs) protection is a system aimed at identifying high-quality food products rooted in tradition, culture and geography of particular localities and fighting against counterfeits. The Japanese government has begun working on introducing the system which is already adopted in the European Union. Although it is one of those inconspicuous quality assurance schemes, the system has also been getting attention in recent trade negotiations such as the Japan-EU Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks. The EU is strongly urging Japan to create a law to protect GIs. Dacian Ciolos, European Commissioner for Agricultural and Rural Development who visited Tokyo last November, stressed that GIs are one of the top priority issues in the ongoing EPA negotiations. One EU official in Japan said it would be difficult for Japan and the EU to conclude the agreement unless Japan creates a sufficient GI protection system.
The EU’s firm stance reflects the fact that it shifted its basic agricultural strategy to focus more on premium products. In the agricultural market, EU products are facing fierce competition with low-price products from such countries as Brazil and the United States, and the EU intends to strengthen its competitiveness by concentrating on its traditional brands.
In the global market, it is impossible to avoid getting involved in limitless price competition as long as one sells ordinary clothing or bags, for example, but strong brand names such as Gucci have a competitive advantage in terms of sales. In order to maintain such an advantage, a legislation to control fake products becomes vital.
GI is a scheme which is intended to eliminate counterfeits in the agricultural sector. In the EU countries, high-quality food items with long tradition, such as certain cheese and ham brands, are certified as genuine products and fake products are excluded from markets. In an effort to take advantage of the tradition and reputation of its farming areas, the EU has worked on expanding GI protection outside Europe through bilateral EPA negotiations with different countries.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has been strongly opposed to this trend, as the nation has many European immigrants who produce and sell European-style food products named after their places of origin. The U.S. fears that such products could be identified as fake products and be eliminated from markets if strict GI protection measures are adopted. The U.S. is trying hard to water down movements towards GI protection in trade negotiations such as the TPP talks. South American countries and Australia are also against GI protection.
The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has been working on introducing Japanese-style GI protection, but the scheme has been at a stalemate for more than a year and a half, torn between conflicting demands of the U.S. and the EU.
However, the government has recently become eager to conclude the Japan-EU EPA which will lead to reduction of tariffs, reflecting the intentions of the Japanese industry, especially the auto industry which is looking to increase EU-bound auto exports. The government has set on introducing the GI protection system, as the EU considers it an essential prerequisite for concluding the EPA.
(Jan. 15, 2014)