What’s in a name? Rooibos, tequila, Karoo lamb and Geographical Indications

What’s in a name? Rooibos, tequila, Karoo lamb and Geographical Indications
Let your rooibos tea steep for three to five minutes for the perfect cup. (Photo: Supplied)

Professor Johann Kirsten responds to our recent stories on the certification of rooibos tea and on tequila production in the Karoo.

I read with great interest the latest issue by the Food Team of Daily Maverick (Thank God It’s Food – 18 June 2021).  The article  by Bianca Coleman (Rooibos tea is a balm, inside the body and out) as well as the very interesting story by Leah van Deventer (Promises and pitfalls of Karoo Agave) provided a very welcome and informed perspective on the concept of Geographical Indications (GIs). Bianca gave us a clear account of the significance, as well as the implications of the June 2021 registration by the European Commission of the designation “Rooibos/Red Bush” in its register of protected designations of origin and protected geographical indications where it joins Champagne, Irish Whiskey, Porto, Queso Manchego and other products.

Leah’s story about Tequila and Mezcal Distillers on Tim Murray’s farm also highlighted the international politics of GIs, or names that are associated with specific countries – in this case Mexico – where the Mexican spirit producers objected to the use of the name, Tequila, by South African producers. This is the same issue South Africa had with Champagne, Port and Sherry and had to drop the use of these names on demand from the EU, about 25 years ago. And now South Africans should be very mad about the news that “Biltong” has been stolen by an American outfit recently.

These two articles are welcomed following some earlier reporting in Daily Maverick (9 August 2019) which seems to have misunderstood and misinterpreted the meaning and relevance of Geographical Indications. It was then argued that the bid to register a GI for Karoo Lamb was controversial and considered to be a hijack of the Karoo Lamb name. Now almost two years later all South Africans are celebrating the registration in the EU of Rooibos as a GI. Unfortunately the same fortune is not meant for Karoo Lamb despite the fact that Rooibos and Karoo Lamb developed their “rules of use” and production practices that define these products and their origin, in the same government sponsored research programme initiated back in 2006.

Opposition from individual farmers, entrepreneurs, abattoirs and retail chains, such as Woolworths, have delayed the official registration of Karoo Lamb as a GI. This suggests that there are many vested interests at play here. This could include farmers, who fear that they will be excluded from using the word Karoo Lamb in future. But the reality is that you cannot call something Rooibos when it is produced in Mpumalanga or Australia. And you can also not call lamb “Karoo lamb” if it originates from Riebeek Kasteel, Robertson or Kroonstad or is produced in a feedlot or on irrigated pastures. These lambs taste different and do not have the key ingredients to ensure the unique taste and meat quality associated with Karoo Lamb which roam free on natural Karoo veld. It does not matter if the feedlot or irrigated pasture is in the Karoo. If it is not from Karoo veldt it is not Karoo Lamb. This we have proved with years and years of scientific evidence. Why is it then that South Africans do not want to work together to make this work and why is it that Woolworths want to prevent Checkers and Pick n Pay from also selling Karoo Lamb in future. All of them do sell “real” Parmigiano Reggiano (Parmesan cheese), Stilton cheese and Roquefort cheese. What is then the issue? Is it because people still fail to understand the concept?

The main issue that all these products (such as Karoo Lamb and Rooibos) have in common is that the rights to their name belong to all the people from the specific region and the idea behind a GI registration is to protect the rights of the people from the region as a collective – not for any specific individual or company – but for everyone. Therefore, it is not the same as a brand or trademark (which is the ownership of an individual entity) – it is an intellectual property (IP) right belonging to the region. This right does not belong to individuals, and the whole process of the GI application is to protect the right of a geographical region (Parma, Champagne, Karoo) from individual exploitation by people not from the region, or fraudsters within the region. It is thus about integrity, honesty and preventing food fraud.

A name such as the Karoo evokes images of quality and wholesomeness, a value that can be profitably used to sell cookbooks, products, experiences, etc. But nowhere is there a verification process to ensure that the name is not misappropriated, and the IP of the region not manipulated to lay claim to products from the region when it is not. It is the same worry when someone sells you Parma Ham made in Benoni or a counterfeit Rolex watch. That is precisely how people feel if they buy Karoo Lamb (which evokes the image of free range on Karoo bossies) that was raised outside the Karoo region, or in feedlots or on lucerne pastures. They will feel cheated, and unprotected.

These principles and arguments should resonate well with someone who believes in ethically sourced and origin-based foods. It is therefore difficult to understand why major retail chains are not interested in supporting this central part of South African food heritage and why the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development does not introduce a formal recognition of the Karoo Lamb GI and thereby critical protection for the product value of Karoo farmers. This baffles the mind. DM/TGIFood

Prof Kirsten has been working on the economics of origin-based foods for the past 15 years. He  was the lead researcher in a three year long research project which analysed, identified and confirmed the true GI characteristics of Rooibos, Karoo Lamb and Honey Bush back in 2006.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.7% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.3% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.3% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.3%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options