- As the Brexit end date creeps closer and closer, professionals in the food industry are voicing their concerns about the status of the 80 EU-protected foods produced by the UK.
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Among other things, the EU provided the UK with legislation regarding protected foods. Foods like the Cornish Pasty, the Traditional Cumberland Sausage, and Bramley apples are protected by regulations put in place by the EU. As ever the prospect of Brexit brings with it more questions than answers. There is no certainty as to what the ramifications of leaving the established system will bring, and producers are left wondering how they will cope until a new system is up and running.
In the EU, there are three levels of protected status a food can be given. Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) relates to the location where a product is made and is the most prevalent form of protection in the UK; Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) is the stricter version of a PGI, wherein all three stages of creation of a product (production, processing, and preparation) need to take place in a set location; Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG) refers to the necessarily traditional methodology or ingredients used in production.
According to an FDF spokesperson: “The UK Government’s plan is to transfer the current EU legislation on Geographical Indications (GIs) into domestic UK law. This would ensure that UK GIs, which are already registered, remain protected in the UK after leaving the EU.” In the July government-issued white paper, the UK government has confirmed that plans are in place to continue the protection scheme after Brexit, assuring producers that current protections will continue and future regulations will mirror past ones: “The UK will be establishing its own GI scheme after exit, consistent with the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS). This new UK framework will go beyond the requirements of TRIPS, and will provide a clear and simple set of rules on GIs, and continuous protection for UK GIs in the UK. The scheme will be open to new applications, from both UK and non-UK applicants, from the day it enters into force.” But in August of this year, PDOs were used as a bargaining chip by UK negotiators to get better market access in the EU. While the threat was the UK not recognising protected EU products, the two-way nature of the relationship put protected UK products at risk.
Labels like PGI are important to both producers and consumers and the industry itself is worth £1bn, or over £6bn if the spirits industry is included. Think Scotch Whisky. For the producer, it is a livelihood; for the consumer it is the assurance of quality and tradition. Billy Kevan, dairy manager of Colston Bassett Dairy, producers of PDO-protected Stilton, says the PDO label serves to assure buyers in the EU market can know the cheese they are buying meets high standards, “our dairy has to be audited biannually, successful completion of these audits allows us to use the PDO mark and call our cheese Stilton.” According to the board of the Cornish Pasty Association: “A lot of work has been done in the past 20 years to reconnect people with food, particularly by raising their awareness of where it comes from, how it is made, and what makes a product great. Geographic indicators have played a big part in this, by celebrating and adding value to regional distinctiveness and generating a sense of pride in it, something that had become all but lost in the preceding couple of decades.”
Reactions vary from uncertainty to reassurance. The Cornish Pasty Association board says “We understand that British products will remain protected within the EU and would expect the UK government to adopt a system for reciprocal recognition of protected products made in the EU and sold within this country. We would therefore anticipate that consumers both in Britain and in the EU will continue to be protected and assured by the scheme.” Meanwhile, some companies express concerns about the sparsity of details, worried about what will happen during the transition period. According to Dr Matthew O’Callaghan, chairman of UK Protected Food Names Association: “The white paper talks about the protection of UK products in the UK. For example with Mowbray Pork Pies, one of our original aims of getting EU protection was because of copyright issues within the UK, similar to those suffered by Cornish Pasties. Mowbray Pork Pies and Cornish Pasties are not really exported so the European dimension for us is not really that important. However, for products such as Quality Meats Scotland or Stilton that really is important and I think that is where there is concern. That the white papers say nothing about having a reciprocal scheme with the EU.” Some of the primary concerns, says O’Callaghan, is “We are less than 6 months away and we [producers of protected goods] have still not been consulted on any schemes.”According to Patricia Michelson, founder of La Fromagerie: “I don’t think we, as a country, have ever experienced such uncertainty and lack of information on such an important and life-changing aspect for a country. How on earth did we get ourselves into this position without first knowing what we were letting ourselves in for. We can keep beating ourselves up about it but we need to focus on making the transition as painless as possible and positive for the sake of future working relationships.”
However, the UK will not be starting with a blank slate when it comes to building a plan. Columbia, for instance, is not a member of the EU, but Columbian coffee is protected under EU regulation. The biggest hurdle for the UK at the moment is establishing a system that is reciprocal with the EU. “The fear,” O’Callaghan says, “is what happens to if we bounce out the system without any regulation; EU products within the UK won’t be recognised and to that extent why should they recognise us?” As Brexit approaches, tensions between the UK and EU grow higher, but it is in this moment that the biggest focus should be on collaboration.
The new system provides an opportunity for the UK to update the old one, amending where it best sees fit. Because it will be a country rather than an organisation working on the implementation, the new system should be easier to navigate. “One would hope it would be less bureaucratic, smoother. Because it is an awful bureaucratic system to get through.” says O’Callaghan. It took almost ten years for Cornish pasties to receive their certification, and it took eleven for Melton Mowbray pork pies to get theirs. The complicated nature of applying, with its many levels of paperwork, has led to some UK products to abandon registration. Industry professionals are hoping for a system that makes it easier for future products to apply, while keeping a smooth transition for those that are already registered. According to O’Callaghan: “I think there was a hint we might get a better scheme, simpler but better, but we’re getting to the end of it.”
When asked about what he wants out of the new system, O’Callaghan responded: “I think we’d want the same scheme and we’d want it seamless. I mean there are things that can use some slight amendment. We think there ought to be a register of all protected producers. It costs to be inspected. We have an annual inspection of our members, which isn’t cheap and to that extent we think that should give us rights, terms of making sure that other producers around us have to go through that regime. There’s no enforcement in UK law. Trading standards at the moment have to rely on passing off as a pork pie and therefore its the law of passing off but we would like a specific enforcement in which if it isn’t a pork pie then you would be prosecuted for the production of an unregistered product. These things are expensive to produce and so we think that there is a premium and that’s why other people want to come and there’s concerns for the consumer because they could be getting ripped off but without regulation, they would never know.”
Michelson adds: “It is not in the best interests of the EU and UK to not work together. Trade should be welcomed from both sides of the channel and what Brexit has opened up is maybe how the EU is run and whether it should have a shake up and re-think. I loved being part of a wider market, and would hope that even though Britain has stepped away from the EU it can continue to make a contribution to developing new ways of working with EU countries. What is important and what I think has been an interesting strategy is the way that transport hubs and companies in UK and EU are discussing how to work better. Regulation has always been a vital part, but now more than ever transport companies should be striving for a 5 star business profile making their paperwork work electronically from UK to EU and allowing movement between countries to be smoother and more efficient because of their status grade. Consolidating good transport relations will help at ports and customs which up until now has not been seen as a powerful tool for moving vehicles quickly through ports and customs - but it should be and although it may be a little more expensive - businesses using properly regulated transport will be ensured of a quicker exit out and entrance to their countries. Whether we like it or not we are going to see changes in the way we work outside of the UK. Whether we like it or not we will see prices rising and poor exchange rates for the next few years until things settle down. Whether we like it or not all agriculture will have to make changes and sacrifices because of increased prices of products they buy from the EU. However, now more than ever the government this side of the channel and those in the EU need to make sure that their farmers and distributors are looked after and encouraged to continue trading together.”
Pictured: Colston Bassett Stilton
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