Champagne, Parma ham, Cornish Pasties and Welsh Lamb are just a few examples of food and drink that are inextricably linked to the region in which they were first created. However, they are also "brands" protected by EU legislation designed to promote and safeguard their origin and authenticity in the EU (and in a number of other international territories).
Belgian chocolate is renowned around the world for its high quality and skill. However, its brand does not actually benefit from EU protected status, and so any producer importing potentially inferior chocolates into the EU can use the word 'Belgian', even if the product is made thousands of miles away.
And with global demand for Belgian chocolate growing, the industry thinks the time is right to seek protection against imitators. This news follows the EU's recent inclusion of "chocolate and derived products" as a specific food category worthy of protection.
Chocolate is a major tourist attraction in Belgium, with over 200 chocolate firms and more than 2,000 chocolate stores and museums drawing thousands of visitors every year. It is an industry said to be worth approximately £3 billion every year. Financial figures worth protecting.
Jos Linkens, the chief executive of Neuhaus, the company that invented the hard-shelled, cream-filled chocolate, the praline, in 1912, wants the same level of EU protection for Belgian chocolate, as is given to famous cheeses, such as Stilton.
"What makes us sad is that very often the copies are not up to the standard of the originals," he said. "Why does camembert need to be made in Normandy, champagne in the region of Champagne? In all gastronomic products, the origin has some importance. It's about being honest and straightforward."
Belgian chocolate makers met with regional governments last month in order to decide how Belgium might apply to the EU to get protected status for Belgian chocolates, and investigated the possibility of European Community trademark protection for complete brand protection.
"If top chocolatiers around the world copied us, perhaps we would be happy. We don't want the image of quality to suffer," said Linkens, who is also president of Belgian biscuit, chocolate and confectionery federation Choprabisco.
Like many other luxury products, despite their quality, sales of Belgian chocolates have stagnated or slumped in markets like Europe and North America. However, this has been compensated with huge growth in the emerging markets, particularly Asian markets where in 2011 sales were three times their level a decade earlier.
This surge in demand has left foreign producers eager for a share of the market, creating an influx of faux 'Belgian' chocolate to meet demand.
As an example to follow, the Belgian chocolate industry should perhaps look to Switzerland for a textbook lesson in how to protect its chocolatey assets. The Swiss have been far more active in the protection of their national brand. The Chocosuisse federation of chocolate makers has trademarked the terms 'Swiss' and 'Switzerland' in the EC, US and Canada and works to enforce those rights, regularly filing law suits on behalf of its members.
Richard Stephens is an IP lawyer at Capital Law www.capitallaw.co.uk
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