WASHINGTON, Feb. 19, 2015 – The European Union’s agriculture commissioner sought to downplay the seriousness of a dispute with the United States over the EU’s protection of geographical indications, product names such as Parmesan and Feta cheese.

“The GI issue is not going to be as big an issue between the United States and the Europeans in these T-TIP negotiations as people think,” said Phil Hogan, using the acronym for the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

But Hogan, speaking at USDA’s annualAgricultural Outlook Forum, said Europeans viewed geographical indications as “rural intellectual property.” It’s “an emotional issue that has a lot of local resonance,” he said.

The vast majority of geographical indications claimed by the EU would be noncontroversial, he said, but at a later news conference he declined to specify the remaining GIs that would be difficult to resolve from the EU perspective. At a briefing a day earlier, Hogan had mentioned champagne and port wine in this category.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, appearing with Hogan at the news conference, emphasized that from the U.S. perspective the GI dispute was still a major source of disagreement in the T-TIP talks. 

“This is a significant issue, make no mistake about it,” Vilsack said. For U.S. diary producers the product names the EU wants to protect involve “generic terminology they have used for many, many years,” Vilsack added.

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Making a broad case for a U.S.-EU trade deal, Hogan said that U.S. farmers “stand to benefit enormously” if the EU lowers its tariffs. A U.S.-EU agreement can “create a trade superhighway” between the two economic powers, he said.

Hogan also addressed other areas of dispute in the talks, including biotechnology and animal welfare standards. He said biotech was a “big political challenge” for EU officials because of concerns from consumers and advocacy organizations.

“It’s never easy to change mindsets overnight. Even though the science might be OK, there's a political dimension,” he said. But the European Commission is seeking to accelerate approvals of existing biotech traits to avoid driving up feed costs for its producers, he said.

He said EU consumers insist on higher animal welfare standards in return for subsidizing farmers. Europeans would expect the T-TIP to result in a “minimum set of standards” that must be met on both sides of the Atlantic.

Vilsack, meanwhile, was upbeat Thursday about the state of the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations with Japan, but not with Canada. Talks with Japan “have been serious and they have been substantive, and they have resulted in a movement on both sides.”

Canada on the other hand has yet to start negotiating, Vilsack said, on U.S. demands that it lower its barriers to U.S. dairy and poultry products.

“There may be many reason the Canadians have decided to engage in the approach that they’ve taken, but it is not necessarily conducive to getting an agreement, if you’re unwilling to put a serious proposal on the table, if you’re suggesting that nothing gets put on the table until everyone else is finished their negotiations. That’s an unfortunate … approach in my view, personally,” Vilsack said.

Vilsack said the administration continues to work to resolve the labor dispute that has slowed down exports of meat and produce through West Coast ports. The dispute centers on the role of an arbitrator that handles day-to-day issues between port operators and dock workers.

Labor Secretary Thomas Perez has impressed on labor and management the importance of ending the dispute, Vilsack said. “The longer it goes on the longer time it will be before we catch up, because of the backlog that’s occurring,” Vilsack said.