Steaming Ahead: November 2012

First published in the MLA Newsletter, November, 2012.

In October, I had the pleasure of representing Maine lobster at a conference which included product groups such as the Idaho Potato Commission, Napa Valley Vitners, the Champagne Bureau, Missouri Grown Pecan Growers, Ginseng Board of Wisconsin and others.

The conference was organized by a new group known as the American Origin Products Association (AOPA). This group hopes to build a united voice for producers of geographically-based products and create a national system to recognize and protect these products. The MLA has become a founding member.

I can’t tell you how many calls I have gotten over the years from lobstermen and others who have been frustrated by the false advertising of Maine lobster. In some cases it has been a tank with oversized lobsters or tiny lobster tails being served as “Maine lobster,” neither of which can be legally harvested in Maine. Some diners have been served “Maine lobster” and noticed those lobsters sporting “Canadian wild-caught” or “Massachusetts whale-safe” claw bands.

Maine lobster should only refer to lobster harvested in Maine – so why is that so difficult? Like many brands with a strong perceived value, others want to copy us. Substituting a knock-off as the real thing unfortunately has become commonplace. And this practice dilutes the brand and erodes its premium value.

It takes a lot to build and protect a brand. When I started with MLA back in 2000, the term “Maine lobster” was still considered by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) an acceptable name for any lobster from the species Homarus americanus whether it was harvested in New Jersey, Canada or Maine. Due to efforts of the Maine Lobster Promotion Council, this is no longer the case. Unfortunately, many businesses still advertise “Maine lobster” when they sell lobster from other areas. The FDA, citing food safety as its primary concern, does not dedicate any resources to enforcement.

In April of 2007, the Maine Lobster Promotion Council did take steps to protect the Maine lobster name by registering “Certified Maine Lobster” with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and obtaining a certification mark for Maine lobster. Certified Maine Lobster was created so that customers would know if their lobster came from Maine by looking for the Certified Maine Lobster tags or labels. The program only allows the certification mark to be used on lobster harvested in Maine and marketed by Maine-based dealers or processors. While the program was launched with a lot of press and hype, there was no real outreach and it was never embraced by Maine’s lobster industry. Though the certification mark remains in place, it has not been implemented in any meaningful way.

We are left with a situation where we have a widely recognized brand name, “Maine lobster,” but we’re doing nothing to ensure that customers are able to distinguish it from other lobster. We have no means to protect our brand from those who want to use it on their impostor lobsters. So our very valuable brand is available to anyone who wants it, thus undermining its value to the lobstermen who bring in the lobsters. Ultimately, it is up to the producers to protect it.

The American Origins Product Association offers a way forward. The conference was focused “geographical indications” or “GI’s,” which are a type of intellectual property. GI’s identify products which originate in a region where a given quality, reputation or other product characteristic is essentially attributable to its geography. GI’s encourage quality production and often promote the development of tourism. This term came into wide use in 1995 as the result of the World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). Geographical Indications are best known in the European Union (EU) which has a history of local, specialized agriculture closely linked to products known for their place of origin, such as Roquefort cheese, Cognac or Champagne.

The U.S. does not recognize GI’s and instead stands by its trademark system. The primary difference is that the responsibility and expense of protecting abuses of trademarks lies with their owners, whereas GI’s are protected by government. In the case of Certified Maine Lobster, the Maine Lobster Promotion Council would be responsible for taking offenders to court, which would be extremely expensive.

The EU and many other countries around the world fiercely protect their GI’s because they understand that consumers are willing to pay more for these premium products, which translates into economic development, usually in rural areas. They understand that allowing companies to pass off generic products under a GI name equates to stealing intellectual property, misleading customers and diluting the value of the product. The EU Web site states “[protection of GI’s] requires intense and costly legal efforts that small rural communities can rarely afford. This is why GIs need an enhanced protection.”

Napa Valley wines has eliminated problems of impostor wines bearing its label in Europe by being recognized as a GI by the European Union, the first U.S. producer group to do so. Interestingly, the GI program manager for the EU told me how much he loved Maine lobster and wondered why we weren’t working to protect our brand in the EU.

Through the AOPA conference, I learned that other producer groups are way ahead of us. The Idaho Potato Commission has rules in place requiring all Idaho-grown potatoes to be labeled with certification marks indicating that they were grown in Idaho. Napa Valley wine producers have strict labeling requirements for those who use the Napa Valley brand. Both of these brands invest significantly in quality standards and brand protection. And it pays. Napa Valley wine accounts for only four percent of California’s wine production, but 30 percent of the value.

Maine lobster is unique and has a rich cultural heritage and stewardship. Though we harvest the same species as our neighbors to the north and south, our lobster is well-known for its distinct taste and texture. While we share a lobster management plan with other U.S. lobster-producing states, Maine is the only state that does not allow lobsters to be caught with trawl gear, and we are the only region that enforces our state regulations in federal waters. Maine lobster is indeed a unique, premium product.

If we want Maine lobster to be sold as a premium brand rather than being traded as a commodity, we must insist on establishing programs and protections which support that goal. This will require a commitment to quality from harvesters, a commitment to the Maine brand from dealers and processors, and a commitment from the industry to establish a marketing organization with a budget capable of executing a premium brand strategy. It will require us to work with our state and federal government to put protections in place to support the Maine lobster brand and prevent lobster harvested outside of Maine from being labeled as “Maine lobster.”

As always, stay safe on the water.

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