10/11/2012 05:18 EDT | Updated 12/11/2012 05:12 EST

Why Kraft Parmesan Could Soon Be a Collector's Item

Flickr: Maggie Hoffman

The average Canadian likely knows more about the "Caramilk secret" than it does about the issues currently on the table in two major trade negotiations that could significantly impact the Canadian food industry. Clues about the status of the talks and the issues on the table have largely come only through leaked information and speculation.

In part two of this two-part series, I will let you know about the second controversial element of the negotiations (geographic indications), and how our food may be affected. The first of the two-part series (discussing supply management) is here.

The Trade Talks

Canada is currently negotiating two trade agreements -- one with the European Union (the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement or CETA) and another with 11 countries, including the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, and Singapore (the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP). Among other things, these agreements aim to facilitate trade and investment between member countries.

CETA talks have been going on since May 2009. The talks are secret, and information is piecemeal. Some insiders say the agreement will be negotiated by the end of this calendar year.

TPP talks have been underway since 2007 but Canada only recently joined the negotiation. One sticking point to Canada's involvement: our system of supply management -- the first of two food-related issues on the table in the CETA and TPP negotiations.

Geographic Indications

Geographic(al) indications, or "GIs" are a type of intellectual property that identifies a product as originating from a specific region and acts as a certification that the product has certain qualities or is made in a certain way. In a sense, a GI gives "street cred" to a product based on where it comes from.

Currently, only wines and spirits are entitled to GI protection in Canada, but that may be about to change.

There are over 6,000 GIs registered in the EU, including those covering a wide variety of foods: meats, cheeses, oils, fruits and veggies, breads and pastries. The EU places a high priority on obtaining support for and recognition of its GI system and its list of GI products and all trade agreements signed by the EU to-date have recognized GIs.

So what does this mean for Canadian food?

If Canada enters into a trade agreement and acknowledges all of the GIs currently recognized in Europe, Canadian companies will lose the ability to label products that are subject to GIS. Consider this: Kraft Parmesan cheese will no longer be allowed to be called "parmesan" (or "parmesan-like" as companies can't even draw similarities or make comparisons to protected GIs).

Imagine the confusion at grocery stores across the country! Calling all branding experts: what will we now call parmesan cheese?!? The best I've come up with is "pasta cheese" -- it's a good thing I'm not in marketing...

In addition to confusion, consider the increased cost associated with rebranding that will undoubtedly flow down to you-know-who: yup, us the consumers (assuming we will be able to identify the re-branded foods in the first place!).

It seems pretty grim, but as with most things, there are two sides to the coin. Consider the possibility that the GI system could provide protection to some uniquely Canadian foods -- Canadian bacon, eh?