Counterfeit countermeasures: Japan taps digital monitoring technology to crack down on fraudulent agri-food exports

By Pearly Neo

- Last updated on GMT

Japan is cracking down on counterfeit agri-food product exports protected under the Geographical Indication (GI) scheme. ©Japan MAFF
Japan is cracking down on counterfeit agri-food product exports protected under the Geographical Indication (GI) scheme. ©Japan MAFF

Related tags Japan Food fraud Counterfeit digital Geographical indications

The Japanese government is cracking down on counterfeit agri-food product exports protected under the Geographical Indication (GI) scheme with the use of digital monitoring technology.

According to OECD data, Japan ranks seventh in terms of countries most affected by counterfeit activity, with some JPY74.1bn (US$492.7mn) of this attributable to counterfeit food products.

“Processed food products are a particularly important export sector for Japan as it makes up about JPY771.1bn (US$7.15bn) in export value and Japanese companies have a 2.2% global market share of this segment,”​ the Japan Patent Office said via a formal report.

“Other major segments are alcoholic drinks (JPY432.3bn/US$4bn) and soft drinks (JPY217.9bn/US$2.02bn) where Japanese companies hold 5.2% and 2.6% of the respective global market shares.

“These three categories have also been found to be amongst the top most-counterfeited export products, costing us well over JPY136bn (US$904mn) in losses as of 2021.

“Surveys with local manufacturers have revealed that many of these counterfeits are still being manufactured in China and the means of concealing the production and sales of these items have become more sophisticated over the years.

“For instance, some of these are mass-produced in China but the logo is exported separately and [only] affixed in the country of sale so technically there is no infringement of the trademark [for the majority of the process] and enforcement can only be carried out for a short time after the logo is attached and before it goes on sale.”

To combat these new tactics, the government is in turn also looking to implement higher-tech and more sophisticated technologies in identifying and weeding out such counterfeits, such as working with specialised digital platforms under the Emergency Export Environment Improvement project which is headed by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF).

“The Emergency Export Environment Improvement project aims to resolve various issues and challenges for Japanese exports to destination countries, such as regulations and other hindering factors,”​ MAFF said.

“This will be crucial for Japan to achieve the export value target set by the government which is JPY2tn (US$13.3bn) by 2025 and JPY5tn (US$33.3bn) by 2030.”

Under this project, MAFF awarded a tender for GI counterfeit monitoring to a coalition specialising in IP protection using the digital platform Linkmonitor developed by Tutela Digitale, with an initial project of monitoring and tracking Japanese counterfeit foods in France.

“Linkmonitor is a platform that analyses in real time the reputation of people, brands, and products on more than 150 million online sources in 187 languages, [and Tutela Digitale] has been tasked with monitoring for France all mentions of as many as 229 Japanese GI products,”​ IP lawyer and Tutela Digitale Co-Founder Sveva Antonini told us.

“This includes all mentions of Japanese foods from kobe beef to yubari melon or miso hatcho and iburigakko pickled radish to the famous oita mandarin kabosu that might appear on online posts, social media, articles, and newspaper articles.

“The results obtained will then be further filtered by the platform to verify authorised outlets and [we will also provide] legal expertise and analyse the results with the goal of creating a database containing citations of supermarkets, restaurants, and stores that claim to offer one or more of the 229 products selected by the Japanese government to the public.”

This is not Linkmonitor’s first rodeo at working on a government level for anti-counterfeiting measures, as it had already successfully completed a similar project with the Italian government previously.

"Counterfeiting is a problem that not only affects Japan but has a very strong global impact that subtracts billions from the economy every year,”​ he added.

“This project represents a fundamental step towards protecting brands, products and companies, while promoting sustainable export growth".

Japan GI protected products

A search on the website of Japan’s Geographical Indications as of March 2024 revealed that there are currently 145 agri-food related GIs registered, with six of these having made it into the list in January 2024 alone.

Examples of processed items in this list include Black Garlic from Aomori prefecture, Sanuki shiro miso from Kagawa prefecture, Date no Anpo Gaki dried persimmon from Fukushima and Miyagi Prefectures, and Miwa Soumen noodles from Nara prefecture.

Very specific characteristics need to be fulfilled in order to classify particular products as having a particular geographical origin, usually a combination of both natural characteristics such as climate and soil conditions; and unique production methods.

GI products in Japan are protected under the local Act on Protection of the Names of Specific Agricultural, Forestry and Fishery Products and Foodstuffs (Geographical Indication (GI) Act, which protects it as an intellectual property.

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