Is biltong on its way to becoming a South Africa -only brand?
With Champagne as perhaps the most famous example of region-specific branding and an infamous (and failed) “coup” on the biltong name by Swiss company Catora AG, the battle for territorial recognition of this delicious snack could be interesting to watch.
Strategic economic importance
There can be little doubt that biltong is a cornerstone of the South African economy at this point. Hunters – including biltong hunters – contribute a little less than $1 billion to the South African economy each year.
Add to that about $200 million from the sale of beef biltong and game biltong, and it’s easy to see why South African businesspeople love their biltong, too.
Yet South Africa is far from the only country to benefit from the biltong boom – a leading US biltong manufacturer has seen its profits increase by 500%.
We are fast approaching a point where “geographically indicated’, or GI status could become a valuable marker and protection for South African -produced biltong.
Not only does this allow higher prices to be charged for country of origin products, but it can also be an incentive in the export market. This has been done successfully for many products. However, it is not that simple with biltong.
Not only does the biltong “culture” actively promote different recipes and “secrets,” something that cannot be part of the GI process, but Namibia has an as rich and varied history with biltong as South Africa.
A means to an end: the ‘GI’ (geographically indicated) mark
How does one ‘trademark’ food, anyway? If you’ve never heard of this before, don’t worry! That’s mainly because the specific term used, while roughly the same idea as copyright or trademark, is actually GI (“geographically indicated”).
This is a member of the intellectual property family that only allows certain manufacturers in certain geographic locations to use specific terminology for their products.
Still, confused? Most of us are familiar with the fact that Champagne-like sparkling wines can be made under a range of names worldwide. Still, only those made specifically in the geographical area of Champagne Valley in France are allowed to call themselves Champagne.
In other parts of the world, they must use alternative terminology: cava, prosecco, … Irish Whiskey, Greek Kalamata Olives, and Italian Parma Ham are other products that have a similar GI status.
If we talk about South African products, both Rooibos tea and Karoo lamb have successfully applied for GI status. But why do these iconic products want the status?
The mark of exclusivity from their country of origin encourages consumers to trust the quality of the product they are receiving, which means a juicy boost in sales. Increased customer confidence is also a big factor.
If it boosts production in the country of origin, it’s a status that can work very well for the products in question.
What’s involved in granting a GI?
But you don’t just walk up to someone and ask for GI status. It requires a dedicated investment in a coordinating body for the product as well as government interest. All stakeholders must be consulted, and registration needs to take place both domestically and internationally.
In short, it is a lengthy and costly process. And unfortunately, as with many products from South Africa, the waters are inevitably muddied by government self-interest and the lack of a clear procedure, and the lack of dedicated legislation on these matters.
Losing indigenous culture
Created by the Khoekhoen and San and recreated by the Voortrekkers, there is a great deal of social, cultural, and historical significance tied up in South African biltong. Nevertheless, a Swiss company based in Belgium has already successfully trademarked the word.
Sadly, this lack of care for things like indigenous language and culture is a hallmark of the faltering and rarely proactive government policy South Africa has to protect its own heritage.
It would take much more proactivity and dynamism to offer South African cultures and languages the protection they intrinsically deserve – and that dynamism never comes from staid and disinterested government sources.
This could prove to be a major (and sad) stumbling block on the road to successfully protecting biltong as the celebrated part of South African heritage that it is. Yet, independent bodies are pushing to protect this cornerstone of the culture.
Will it be enough to prevent biltong from becoming a foreign heritage before it is honored for its South African roots? Currently, it’s difficult to say.
While the joys (and delicious tastes ) of biltong should certainly be shared with the entire world, we can understand why there is a growing movement to ensure that there is also some global recognition for biltong’s homeland.
Will independent South African campaigns overcome the lack of government support, pushy international companies pouncing on the booming biltong “brand,” and the well-known difficulties this sub-Saharan treat will have in getting itself GI status?
As yet, it’s too early to tell, but we will be watching closely!