On 1 March 2021, a new agreement between China and the European Union (EU) has come into force which will provide for the protection of 200 Chinese and European Geographical Indications.

The Chinese market for agricultural products and foodstuffs is one of the largest in the world and is growing year by year, according to the China Food News magazine1. Due to the increasing purchasing power of the Chinese middle class, interest in foreign foods and beverages, new products and international travel has grown. While Chinese consumers have an increased interest in foreign products, China itself also has a rich tradition of geographical indications, many of which are largely unknown to European consumers. This agreement should make these Chinese products more widely available.

Some examples of Chinese geographical indications which will enjoy protection overseas include, Pu’er Cha (普洱茶) for tea, Moutai Jiu (茅台酒) for spirits and Panjin Dami (盘锦大米) for rice; and from Europe into China, Mozzarella di bufala for cheese, Cognac for spirits and Czech Budvar beer (Českobudějovické pivo) for beers.

After 10 years of treaty negotiations between China and the EU, an interim milestone was reached with a mutual recognition of 10 geographical indications in 2012, and on 14 September 2020, both parties signed the present agreement with a more comprehensive scope. During the first phase of its implementation, 100 geographical indications of origin of each contracting party will be protected, and by 2025, 175 other geographical indications will be added to the list for protection. These may not only be from the food and beverages sector but may also include other Chinese products such as Xuan paper (宣纸) and Shu brocade (蜀锦).

The importance of the agreement is highlighted by the fact that, in 2020, China was the third largest market for agricultural products, foodstuffs and beverages from the EU, with more than EUR16 billion (approx. USD19 billion) in value 2. China is also the second most important market for EU3 exports of agricultural and food products, wines and spirits with a protected geographical indication.

Geographical indications are protected product descriptions and names that a manufacturer may use for its produce, which refer to the geographical origin of the respective products. As a requirement for protection, the quality and characteristics of the product must be at least substantially attributable to the geographical origin or the natural and human factors of the place of origin. Therefore, a designation of origin requires a particular proximity of the product to its origin, and typically, geographical indication products include those that are planted or bred from specific regions, where all or some of the raw materials come from a specific area, or are produced in a specific region according to a specific process.

Geographical indications are protected against any misuse of the name or against imitation, even if the correct place of origin is indicated, the use is in translated or transliterated form, or another name is accompanied by additions such as “kind”, “type” or “style”.

The new China-EU treaty gives the right to use a geographical indication (out of the list of 200 mutually recognised geographical indications) on products which conform with the technical specification and all other requirements of the geographical indication in its home jurisdiction. This also includes official quality seals supplied by the authorities. For example, the Chinese seal for geographical indications protected in China, , which is administered by the China National Intellectual Property Administration, and the European seals and for geographical indications protected in Europe, which are widely recognised by European consumers.

On the other hand, the treaty prohibits the use of geographical indications if they are misleading to consumers. For example, if the products do not conform with the regulations of the specific geographic indication, then they will not even be allowed to adopt labels such as “… imitation” or “… style”. This also applies to translations and transliterations of geographical indications.

The China-EU agreement further requires China and the EU to establish procedures to refuse or invalidate trade marks that comprise a geographical indication, or a translation or transliteration of a geographical indication, in relation to goods and services which are covered by that geographical indication. However, earlier trade marks which have been obtained in good faith prior to 1 March 2021 will not be subject to removal from the local trade marks registers.

The local Chinese and EU authorities will enforce the protection of geographical indications whether on their own initiative or upon request of anyone who can show an interest in the geographical indication right. It is expected that such enforcement actions will include the customs authorities which may stop the export and import of products that violate the provisions on geographical indications. The EU and China will set up a joint committee which will monitor the implementation of the agreement and ensure cooperation, including the exchange of information between enforcement agencies, capacity building, promoting information and raising public awareness among businesses and consumers alike.