By Vincent Teh
My colleague (for the purpose of this article let’s call her Angelina J.) and I argue about anything, be it the pronunciation of certain Latin words or the level of my charm and general likeability. Most times, the arguments would be settled amiably by Google, and each time I am vindicated I will chalk it down on my secret scoreboard as one of life’s many small triumphs. Sometimes, the arguments can get a bit heated and she would then resort to violence, like brutally bludgeoning my face with a Minnie Mouse soft toy. Recently, I met a man from Springfield, which I thought is a city in Alabama, Angelina J. on the other hand insisted that Springfield is in Illinois. As it turned out, we were both right. In fact, there are at least 40 Springfields dotted across the land of the free (and the home of the not-so-creative). In Wisconsin alone, there are a total of five Springfields.
If you think all these places having the same name can be a tad confusing, you should meet Lamenda Kingdon of Plymouth (the original Plymouth, not the one in the US). Ms. Kingdon had always wanted to visit the Alhambra Palace in Granada. So, she booked a flight through a travel rewards company and soon was on the plane to Spain. Or so she thought. In fact, the flight she was on was heading to Grenada, a tropical island in the Caribbean, half a world away from her intended destination.
Now, imagine the same thing happening to you but perhaps on a less dramatic (but equally disappointing) scale. What if you bought a bar of chocolate, and on the package you see the word “SWISS”. So you think the epicurean jewel must be crafted in Switzerland by a master chocolatier whose art and skills are matched only by his tennis playing compatriot. But after you had taken a bite of the chocolate, you found that it was nothing like the gratification in gold foil you thought you had bought. Instead, it was a lump of sugar with a tinge of chocolate flavour and a whole load of E numbers. In a fit of rage you perused the packaging, only to find (in a ridiculously microscopic print) that the chocolate was in fact made in a sweatshop a few blocks away from where you live. If there’s something strange in your neighbourhood, who ya gonna call? Well, in this case, the Association of Swiss Chocolate Manufacturers.
The Association of Swiss Chocolate Manufacturers a.k.a. Chocosuisse (a far catchier crime-busting name) is a cooperative which represents the common interests of the Swiss chocolate industry. Since its inception, CHOCOSUISSE has been very vigilant in protecting and regulating the use of the word “SWISS” or “Switzerland” on chocolate products. To this end, the Avengers of Swiss Chocolate had been tirelessly fighting to defend its reputation, initiating hundreds of legal actions in various jurisdictions around the world. Its main weapon of choice? None other than its Geographical Indication (or GI). CHOCOSUISSE is not alone in this global fight against the unscrupulous hordes of manufacturers, out to confuse and mislead poor innocent consumers. Today, many things from feet smelling cheese (e.g., Roqueforts, Stiltons, Parmigiano-Reggiano) to your cup of joe (e.g., Colombian Coffee) are protected as GIs.
So what is a GI? A GI is a sign that is used on goods that originate from a specifically demarcated territory (which can be a country or a region within the country) where the reputation, quality or characteristic of the goods is attributed to their geographical origin. It can be applied to natural or agricultural products or any product of handicraft or industry. Although many of the GIs are cheeses, wines, cured meats and alcohol, a GI protected product need not be complicated (or require any rotting or fermenting at all). In Malaysia, products like Kuih Lidah Kampung Berundong Papar, Sarawak Layered Cakes and Sungai Lembing Dan San biscuits have been registered as GIs. For all you know, your Nigella Lawson of an auntie may have her famous kuihs registered as a GI.
So what does a GI do? For the consumers, GIs can be relied upon as a sign of origin and most importantly as a sign of quality. A GI can only be used by producers who conduct their activity or produce their goods in a specific manner or with specific ingredients and within a specific geographical location. Also, GIs are normally administered by a competent body to ensure the products carrying their GIs maintain a certain level of quality. For the producers and manufacturers it is sort of a bragging right. A GI is like a swanky exclusive golf club, and as members they will get to attach the club sticker to the windscreen of their cars, it sets them and their products apart from the plebeian herd. If you think about it, “sparkling wine showers” just doesn’t have the same ring to it as “Champagne showers”, does it?
In this sense GI is different from a traditional trademark. A GI lets the consumers know that a product comes from a certain place and has special qualities due to that place of origin. So, when you are drinking a cup of Darjeeling, you know the tea comes from one of the 87 tea estates in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal, India; or when you down a Scotch, you know the whiskey is made in Scotland with water drawn from the abode of the Loch Ness monster by ginger men in skirts.
A trademark on the other hand distinguishes the goods or services of a business from those of other businesses. In other words, when you buy Nestlé chocolates, you know that it is made by Nestlé S.A. or one of its many licensees, but what you do not know is where the products are made or even what they contain, unless you read the fine print at the back. As the saying goes, “Life is like a box of chocolate, you never know what you’re gonna get”. Well, unless you bought a Nestle SWISS Chocolate that is. In this case, you know that the Nestlé chocolate is made in Switzerland and as such should conform to the standards normally expected of SWISS chocolate. There’s nothing like having a specialized number plate on your Maybach and a sticker of an exclusive golf club on its windshield (well if you can see through the blackout tint).
Note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and need not reflect the views of KASS nor of its clients.