This month, Singapore took the step of setting up a registry for global geographical indications. A geographical indication (GI) refers to an indication used in trade to identify a product as originating from within a geographical area, whereby that area has imbued the product with a distinctive quality or reputation. Well-known GIs include Champagne (from the Champagne region of France), Scotch Whisky (from Scotland), and Cornish pastries (from Cornwall).

A registered GI in Singapore which identifies an agricultural product or foodstuff cannot be used on any goods of the same category as that agricultural product or foodstuff but which did not originate in the place indicated by the GI, whether or not—

  • the true geographical origin of those goods is indicated;
  • the GI is used in translation; or
  • the GI is accompanied by words such as “style”, “kind” or “imitation”.

An application for registration of a GI may only be sought in respect of goods falling within one or more of the categories of goods set out in the Singaporean GI Act. The categories of goods are:

  1. Wines
  2. Spirits
  3. Beers
  4. Cheese
  5. Meat and meat products
  6. Seafood
  7. Edible oils
  8. Non-edible oils
  9. Fruits
  10. Vegetables
  11. Spices and condiments
  12. Confectionery and baked goods
  13. Flowers and parts of flowers
  14. Natural gum

Once a geographical indication is registered, it will be protected for 10 years. The registration may be renewed upon its expiry.

Australian food producing regions which may have an entitlement to GI protection – the most obvious being King Island dairy products, and Yarra Valley cheeses – would need to consider registration in the Singaporean registry. But what of foods in Australia? There is a registry for wines and certain other types of alcohol in Australia as set out in the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation Act 1980. But there is no GI system for foods in Australia. Businesses tend to rely upon trade mark registrations, certification marks, or misleading and deceptive conduct claims.

A 2015 paper entitled “Provenance of Australian food products: is there a place for Geographical Indications?” published by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation noted,

“GIs may function as regional public good assets… Obviously we are not claiming that all regions or all industries will benefit or see benefits in GIs. As this Report shows, many variables affect whether or not a GI system will bring regional benefits. Some wine GIs provide regional benefits in the form of reciprocal spillovers. Some wine GIs also show that GIs may help to drive further investments and improvement in the quality of production. The case of wine GIs also shows that even if GIs are not important to an industry, at one stage of its development they may become so. GIs may turn out to be important for Australia’s artisanal cheese movement if sufficient numbers can cluster within regions. GIs with stricter standards may assist in combatting the free rider problem which otherwise deters quality-enhancing investment. From our interviews we conclude that there is not a uniform story to tell.”

But there should be significant benefit to both consumers and producers. Consumers will have more certainty around the origin of products. As for producers, they presently find themselves on the receiving end of misleading and deceptive conduct claims from European representative bodies claiming that Australian consumers think the goods come from that European territory. The issue of litigation risks arising from the potential for overseas GIs to flood an Australian register is already manifest. A GI register will give clarity in respect of the adoption of a brand which might be a GI. Also, GIs have a halo effect: individual brands can get lost on a supermarket shelf whereas foods from a region will be more recognisable to consumers.

Singapore should be commended for this step, a by-product of the European Union-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (EUSFTA). Australia should get on board, too.