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Cheesy Excuses for Barriers

September 27, 2002

It's like a tragi-comedic Italian opera--call it "Parmesan"--this breast-thumping battle over a region's right to claim title to its cheese, ham or other prized products.

"Food is part of the cultural identity of a people," intones Paolo Galloni, a ham producer in Italy's Parma region.

Andrea Bonati, who heads a group of food producers in the region, adds this paean to geographical pride-of-product: "It's something that deeply affects the feelings...."

Bravo!

It's hard not to admire culinary craft peoples' heartfelt loyalty to local food. Still, we feel obliged to point out that, in translation, these arias for regional respect have become cries for global protectionism.

The European Union has already accepted the arguments, ruling in June that only Parma products, such as that pungent, flavorful hard cheese, can be sold as "Parmesan." The list of EU-protected products has reached 600 and is rapidly growing. Now a Parma consortium wants EU negotiators to extend such protections worldwide through the World Trade Organization.

Who can blame Bonati and his Parma pals for turning up their noses at the grainy stuff that Americans shake onto spaghetti from green cardboard cylinders labeled "Parmesan Cheese?" But taste isn't the only issue. The United States and many other nations allow regions to protect their names with a form of trademark. But they're reluctant to allow regions to stake a claim on names already in wide use, such as Parmesan.

Defenders of regional products, however, are pushing to expand protections of gourmet geographic names to ridiculous lengths.

Under Italian law, Parma ham must be sliced and packaged in the Parma region. Six months ago, a Brussels judge outraged these proud producers by saying it's OK for British butchers to cut the ham.

The United States and many other countries have reasonable rules concerning these products already, and American negotiators in the WTO should continue to resist European proposals to expand protections.

Italian farmers and cheese makers do the world a great epicurean service with their exquisite products, but their overreaching is pure bologna.

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