Now, though, the French idea is catching on worldwide, as the latest tool of those who would protect their regional agriculture and aquaculture from competition. Audacious producers are claiming virtual trademarks on everything from catfish, herring and scallops to certain varieties of rice and onions.
In November, U.S. President George W. Bush signed a one-year provision declaring that only bottom feeders raised in the U.S. could be sold as catfish. Legislation to make the ban permanent passed the Senate in December and is pending in the House. The measure was specifically aimed at competition from Vietnamese farmers who raise a variety of catfish in flooded rice paddies and sell them for attractive prices: about $4.00 a kilo wholesale, vs. $5.60 for U.S.-farmed catfish. Called basa, the Vietnamese fish account for about 20% of catfish fillets sold in the U.S., up from 7% in 1997. "These fish are being pawned off as catfish to unsuspecting American consumers," argued Arkansas Senator Tim Hutchinson, who co-sponsored the legislation against basa, and whose state happens to be a major site of catfish farming. "With names such as Delta Fresh, no one would suspect it is from the Mekong Delta."
Never mind that ichthyologists have found that U.S. catfish and Vietnamese basa are virtually indistinguishable genetically. Never mind that importers of basa defy anyone in a blind taste test to distinguish their product from U.S. catfish. This battle isn't about science or succulence so much as it is about politics and commerce.
Before the catfish flap, Americans from several Southern states fought one another over the popular "no tears" onions known as Vidalia Sweets. Originally grown near the town of Vidalia, Georgia, these onions soon were cultivated elsewhere from Vidalia onion seeds. A 1986 Georgia law says onion growers in only 20 of the state's 159 counties can label their produce Vidalia. Violators are fined by the state's commissioner of agriculture.
Like rice with your onions? Get ready for another food fight. India wants to prevent the U.S. from selling its products as basmati rice, the fluffy, long-grained variety traditionally associated with South Asian cuisine. India has vehemently protested a 1997 U.S. patent granted to a Texas-based company called RiceTec for a genetically engineered variety of basmati developed in the U.S. India's rice crusade won support from demonstrators at the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle last year. And India even achieved rare solidarity with its regional foe, Pakistan, which also exports basmati rice.
Indian farmers believe the U.S. patent was intended to restrict American imports of their basmati rice and boost sales of RiceTec's products, which are sold under names like Texmati and Kasmati. RiceTec denies those claims and says it developed its rice for "American tastes." Indian basmati is a more delicate grain and has a stronger flavor than the shorter-grained Texmati. Still, Indian politicians have called for an international trademark on basmati that would restrict use of the label to rice that comes from the foothills of the Himalayas.
Thailand, too, has asked the wto for trademark protection for its famed variety of jasmine rice—the bright white, popcorn-flavored staple served in many Asian-cuisine restaurants. Thai farmers fear that a strain of the rice being developed for American climes by plant geneticist Chris Deren at the University of Florida will significantly cut into the $300 million worth of jasmine rice sold each year in the U.S.
Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has threatened to sue Deren and has complained to President Bush. In September, Thai rice farmers marched on the U.S. embassy in Bangkok. Deren even received an e-mail that he says "felt threatening" from an organization urging protest against his research. (It included his home address and phone number.) American companies are already expressing interest in commercializing Deren's strain. And RiceTec sells its own brand, called Jasmati.
Such disputes seem likely to proliferate as selective breeding, grafting and genetic manipulation, along with improved farming techniques, make it harder to distinguish product origins. At the same time, producers of popular regional foods around the world are flexing their muscles as never before.
California wines, particularly those from the Napa Valley, regularly best their French and Italian rivals in international competitions; some California sparkling wines have even triumphed over real champagnes. Vintners in Napa are pushing for state legislation to prevent growers outside the valley from using the Napa designation.
Cheesemakers in Parma, Italy, wish they had tried to trademark their wares much earlier. Last year they ran newspaper ads in Europe warning: "The original Parmesan is born only here." But it's probably too late to ward off other producers of the hard, sharp cheese or ask nondiscriminating consumers to develop a prejudice.
The French tried in 1995 to prevent markets and restaurants from selling imported scallops as coquilles St. Jacques—but Canada, with support from the U.S., Peru and Chile, successfully appealed to the wto.
Before they launch hasty trademark fights, countries should consider America's plight. Though it is winning its battle with the Vietnamese, the U.S. has lost ground elsewhere in the trademarking war. Congress's catfish vote forced the U.S. trade representative to drop opposition to a similar ban in Europe that allows only North Atlantic sardines to be sold as herring.