European Union Commissioner of Agriculture and Rural Development Phil Hogan attempted to downplay the importance of the issue of geographic indicators in the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations this week, but Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters the issue is a significant snag in the trade talks.
In a speech at the annual USDA Agricultural Outlook Forum on Thursday, Hogan called geographic indicators — a system of granting legal protection to the names of foods that originate in geographic areas such as Champagne and Parma — “intellectual property for rural areas.” But he said he believes the issue “is not going to be as big” as some industry representatives have said because 95% of the names are noncontroversial while “a handful of names will generate excitement.”
Europe has thousands of such geographical designations. U.S. food companies see potential legal conflicts over everything from common cheeses to meats if the issue isn’t settled.
At a news conference with Vilsack, Hogan said, “I am trying to de-dramatize this issue. We are down to a handful of names.” Other issues such as reducing tariffs are more important, Hogan said.
But Vilsack responded, “This is a big issue. Make no mistake about it from our perspective.”
Vilsack noted that the U.S. dairy industry “particularly” cares about the issue — a reference to the industry’s position that it should be able to continue to use the names of cheeses that originated in Europe but that have been produced in the United States for decades.
“This is not going to be an easy conversation,” Vilsack said, but he added that he believes there can be “creative solutions” to resolve it.
Vilsack also said that “There is a way to get to yes” in the T-TIP negotiations “as long as no one is drawing red lines in the sand,” and noted that Hogan had drawn no lines in the sand.
During his speech and a question-and-answer session earlier with Vilsack, Hogan presented a portrait of European agriculture very similar to that given by officials from his home country of Ireland: as an entity that has moved from a high level of subsidization and control to a free market-oriented global exporter.
He also said he believes the European Union has provided more certainty for genetic modification with its decision that member states can opt in or out of EU policy on cultivation. He also said that he expects a detailed discussion of the subject in the coming weeks.
Reducing European tariffs and increasing regulatory compatibility would improve prospects for U.S. export to Europe, he said.
Hogan noted that the European Union faces “stagnating demand” for food products because its population is stable and income has been down, but that there is a need to feed the rest of the world.
The offer to lower tariffs, Hogan said, “is a clear sign that Europe wishes to be open for business.”
The recent World Trade Organization trade facilitation negotiations “should inspire our work,” he said.
Jerry Hagstrom can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org
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