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The Lebanese/Israeli Hummus War

Courtesy of Eater: Over the weekend, Lebanon asserted its dominance over Israel in producing  tremendous amounts of hummus and falafel, thereby taking back the world record as to both items.  Notably, Lebanese chefs prepared 11,381 pounds of falafel, and 22,994 pounds of hummus (doubling Israel’s previous hummus record!).  

The more interesting aspect of this competition is the controversy as to the origins of hummus.  As you may guess, there is more at stake here than just the world record.  Lebanon has acused Israel of appropriating hummus, which it claims to be a Lebanese dish, and marketing it globally as an Israeli dish.  Israel responds that hummus has been around for centuries and is a regional food tied to no specific country.  Of course, the roots of this dispute go somewhat deeper than the preparation of hummus, but that is an issue for a different type of blog.

In late 2008, Lebanese industrialist Fadi Abboud spearheaded a campaign to have the European Commission recognize protected geographical status of Lebanese foods, which he asserted to include hummus, as well as falafel and tabbouleh.   This status, currently applied to such foodstuffs as parmigiano-reggiano cheese, parma ham and champagne, protects the names of these products by ensuring that only those produced within the designated region may be sold under the geographical name.  For example, if you are growing your grapes in Newark, NJ, you may sell “sparkling wine,” but you may not sell “champagne.”

Generally speaking, before a product may use a geographical indication under this regime, it must be shown that it comes from that geographic area, that it has qualities, reputation or characteristics that are essentially attributable to that place of geographic area, and its production, processing or preparation takes place within that geographic area.  For example, in 2002 Greece was able to successfully argue that particular grazing terrain found in Greece contributed to the unique taste of feta cheese,  and other countries manufacturing feta were forced to stop selling it under that name.

The problem with hummus is, there is no indication as to where it was first prepared, or when.   Chickpeas and sesame seeds, the two main ingredients, have been in use for thousands of years.  While it seems to be generally accepted that hummus was first prepared somewhere in the Middle East, there seems to be absolutely no indication that it was first done in what is now Lebanon.

This would seem to pose a problem for Mr. Abboud’s quest to receieve protected geographical status.  While I am no expert on international trademark issues, it seems to me that the geographical indicator regime has been put in place to protect unique regional specialties that can be directly traced to a specific region (e.g., parma ham).  Hummus (and falafel and tabbouleh, for that matter) are far too old and widespread to be applicable – they simply cannot be accurately be traced back to any specific geographic region. 

As there appears to be no recent information available concerning Mr. Abboud’s proposal, it seems likely that it stalled somewhere in the process.

Absent such protection, to gain the advantage in the hummus war, Lebanon can keep preparing giant vats of hummus in an effort to retain the world record.  Alternatively, it could perhaps just produce and distribute a superior brand of hummus under the country’s name.

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