Karoo lamb earns trademark protection

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For many proud South Africans, a succulent lamb chop grilled over the open flame on a warm summer’s evening, is a symbol of national pride. If that lamb chop originates from the semi-arid landscape of the Karoo, it is bound to be exceptional, having a distinct flavour and fine-grained texture. It is for this reason that Karoo lamb has earned the prestigious status of protection as a geographical indication (GI) in South Africa. 

Geographical indications in a global context

Geographical indications or GIs are a form of intellectual property that identifies a product as originating from a specific geographic area, conveying certain qualities, reputation, or characteristics inherent to that location. GIs play a crucial role in protecting the unique identity and heritage of products, promoting fair competition, and supporting local economies. GIs safeguard the cultural heritage associated with the production of a product and ensures that consumers receive the authentic product.

The most famous examples of geographical indications showcase a diverse range of products and cultures associated with specific regions around the world. For example, champagne, a sparkling wine that hails from the Champagne region in France is renowned for its distinct characteristics, including its effervescence and flavour profile, which are closely tied to the unique terroir of the region.

Similarly, parmigiano-reggiano, often referred to as Parmesan cheese, is an Italian cheese that originates from the Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, and parts of Bologna and Mantua regions. The production of parmigiano-reggiano is governed by strict regulations, ensuring that only cheeses made in this specific geographic area, following traditional methods can bear the name.

Beyond food and beverages, geographical indications also extend to products like Swiss watches, which are well-known for their precision and craftsmanship. The term ‘Swiss made’ serves as a GI, indicating that the watch meets specific criteria related to its production in Switzerland.

South African framework for GI protection

South Africa’s commitment to protecting its gastronomic heritage is evident from the new regulations to the Agricultural Product Standards Act. These regulations align with the minimum standards set by the international Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), to which South Africa has acceded. The TRIPS agreement prohibits the misuse of GIs in a manner that misleads consumers or creates unfair competition.

South Africa’s regulations echo this prohibition, extending protection to registered GIs against any form of misrepresentation. They provide a framework that brings South Africa’s GI protection in line with international standards to ensure that South African products can compete fairly in international markets where GI recognition is already a well-established norm.

When applying for protection as a GI, the link between the product’s unique qualities and its geographical origin must be clearly demonstrated. Furthermore, the product may not conflict with existing trademarks. Following registration as a GI, the legal framework will prevent the improper use of the GI, including direct or indirect commercial use that exploits the reputation of the GI or relates to non-qualifying products.

Karoo lamb as a GI

Karoo lamb’s journey to becoming a GI was a rigorous one, culminating in its recognition as the first such indicator under the regulations in terms of the Agricultural Product Standards Act. The designation of mutton and lamb products as ‘Karoo lamb’ is a guarantee to consumers that it will have an aromatic herbal and musty flavour, attributed to the meat by the natural vegetation that constitutes the diet of free-range sheep in the Nama Karoo and Succulent Karoo Biomes within the Great Karoo. This region covers approximately 19,33 million hectares of natural vegetation in the Western Cape – the region includes the towns of Beaufort West, Laingsburg and Prince Albert.

Karoo lamb is protectable as a GI because of the unique combination of the Karoo’s rainfall patterns, harsh climate and nutrient-rich vegetation, combined with traditional and sustainable farming practices, resulting in mutton with unique, easily distinguishable sensory characteristics. Registered farmers of Karoo lamb must provide proof of origin of the animals to qualifying abattoirs, to verify that the sheep originate from farms in the defined Karoo region. This ensures the livelihood of Karoo sheep farmers and producers by preventing the dilution and misuse of the regional designation.

Implications of the Karoo lamb designation

Aside from boosting national pride, the protection of Karoo lamb as a geographical indication should preserve the unique qualities and cultural heritage associated with these products; promote the agriculture sector in the region and increase employment opportunities, which in turn can stimulate local economies and uplift communities. Moreover, the broader agricultural sector stands to gain as South Africa showcases its commitment to preserving and promoting regional specialties, drawing attention to other potential GIs waiting in the wings. 

Recognition of Karoo lamb as a GI has set the stage for the protection of other agricultural products originating from specific regions of the country, where factors such as the soil characteristics, climate and topography result in products with distinctive and unique characteristics. – Eben Van Wyk, partner, Spoor & Fisher