Geographical indications in EU-Vietnam FTA: beyond quality control
Concluded at the end of 2015, the European Union-Vietnam FTA (EVFTA) has marked a successive breakthrough for the EU in exporting its long-standing sui generis protection of geographical indications (GIs). With respect to the scope of protection, the GI chapter in EVFTA has introduced a peculiar rule that arguably touches upon the quality control of GI-denominated products.
Compliance with “laws and regulations"
At the heart of the GI chapter lies Article 6.5.1(a)(ii). It defines what use of a GI constitutes an infringement: economic operators infringe a GI, among others, if they fail to comply with the "laws and regulations" of the other Party that would apply to the consumption of such products in the other Party. This provision means that a Vietnamese exporter, for instance, who intends to use the protected GI "Quảng Ninh" on exported clams will need to take account of the EU guidelines regarding the consumption of clams in the EU, such as the animal health conditions governing the placing on the market of aquaculture animals as prescribed in Council Directive 2006/88/EC. Arguably, this is outside the scope of product specification control of the GI at issue. In a broader sense, the "laws and regulations" in the provision seem to refer to importing rules such as food safety, animal and plant health for which the EU has already defined an elaborate system with a special focus on agricultural products and foodstuffs. One may also take a closer look at Council Regulation (EC) 1234/2007 establishing a common organization of agricultural markets (CMOs) on specific provisions for certain agricultural products. Accordingly, since the introduction of the Common Agricultural Policy in Europe, the Council has adopted 21 CMOs for each product or category of products, each of which is governed by a separate basic regulation. For instance, the Council Regulation (EC) 2200/96 on the CMO in fruits and vegetables entails production rules such as choice of seed to be used based on intended destination (fresh market/industrial processing) and rules on the protection of the environment during the production stages. That being said, any Vietnamese GI-denominated fruits and vegetables would need to conform to the code of production as such for the sake of import in the EU market.
Rationale and impact
So far, no equivalent provision could be tracked in any previously concluded FTAs between the EU and its trading partners. On the one hand, the underlying purpose of this peculiar provision is to ensure that GI product specifications are in harmony with the common policy of agri-food safety and quality standards that have been specifically disciplined and tailored to each product or group of products within the EU. Vietnamese GI-labelled products actually represent a niche of voluminous agricultural produce; thus, their specific characteristics and codes of practice as denoted in the GI document may not envisage the demanding complex set of rules as stipulated for agricultural products in the EU internal market. Hence, rather than weaken the concept of GI protection, Article 6.5.1(a)(ii) acts as a notable complementary procedural requirement, intended to guarantee that GI products are in unity with the common standard that would apply on the same products produced or manufactured in the EU territory.
On the other hand, the adhesion to unitary health and safety rules for the agri-food could also bring about a positive spin-off effect on the sustainability of the GI products themselves. A typical demonstration could be drawn out of the EU’s regulations on plant health, which might be brought into play if Vietnamese fruits bearing GIs are imported into the EU. As such, this vertical topic addresses a wide range of critical issues including sustainable use of pesticides, biosecurity, field inspection and seed examination. That GI fruits are subject to those rules is perceived to secure the bio-ecological environment in the long term, which shall in return contribute to maintaining the characteristics of the GI products at issue.
Overall, in the short term, this provision may pose an enormous obstacle for Vietnam in the sense that it is not merely restricted to the GI quality as per specifications but also extends to the EU internal regulations on codes of production, animal and plant health issues. A major part of those regulations are indeed alien to Vietnamese domestic businesses and GI producers; meanwhile State guidance as such has still been inadequate. Therefore, it is vital for Vietnamese GI producers and exporters to stay informed and strictly comply with these requirements from the EU for the facilitation GI product market entry given that EVFTA is ratified and takes effect in 2018. After all, the implementation of such comprehensive food security system shall, in the long term, ensure the competitive advantage of Vietnamese GI-registered products.
Written by alumna Quyen Dao
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