What’s in a name? For EU foods, it’s paperwork

“I do agree with those who say that if we have too many, then the value of this tool becomes less important.”

– EU Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel

Europe may risk devaluing the reputation of its treasure trove of high-quality foods as ever more product names win protected status, joining the ranks of hams and cheeses like Parma, Roquefort and Stilton.

Since the scheme began in 1992, the EU has registered around 830 agricultural products and foods – not to mention several thousand European wines, mostly protected under bilateral trade agreements with other countries.

The range of protected names is vast, from meat products, cheeses, fruits, vegetables, seafood, eggs, honey and olives to biscuits, pastries, ice creams and cakes. Some non-food products are also covered, such as cork, wool, essential oils and even hay.

But the process to obtain protected EU status is exhaustive and exhausting. It takes an average of two years for Brussels to process an application, which must be backed by a large dossier of evidence. And not all are accepted anyway.

At present, there are more than 320 applications filed for approval, although some have been sent back for more data. The danger, officials say, is that the value of the EU protection may get diluted, just because of the sheer numbers involved.

“When we look at the number of applications coming in, it is obvious that taking in 12 new member states (since 2004), we have seen an increase,” EU agriculture commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel told a recent news conference on quality foods.

“I’m definitely not in favour of watering down the quality of GIs (geographical indications),” she said. “But I do agree with those who say that if we have too many, then the value of this tool becomes less important.”

There are three EU quality logos, two with a strong geographical element – for example, Shetland lamb, where the animal must be born, raised and slaughtered in the Shetland Islands.

The third category is more general, relating to traditional ingredients and production methods – Spain’s Serrano ham and Belgium’s cherry-flavoured Kriek beer are examples – although a minimum of 25 years’ proven EU usage is usually required.

Green paper

Privately, some European Commission officials say while it’s hard to compare the reputations of, say, Italy’s Parma ham or Chianti wine – both have established export markets around the globe – with relatively unknown sausages or meat pies from some of the newer EU countries, no application should be discouraged.

“The fact that we have several hundred names from member states that have a reputation for this kind of instrument should not be used as a reason to inhibit applications from northern or new member states, for which this excellent mechanism is still largely unfamiliar ground,” one said.

Other officials have voiced doubts about whether certain products are well known enough outside their particular region to justify EU-wide name protection, since the risk of imitation or competition from similarly named items produced in other countries is minimal – as is their level of export trade.

To address these and other concerns about GIs, Fischer Boel recently published a green paper that asks a series of questions about the European Union’s name protection system, including whether existing criteria need to be strengthened or changed.

Her department at the European Commission is expected to present legal policy proposals in this area later next year.

EU countries like Italy, France and Spain were quick to make use of name protection for their agricultural products when the system began. Now, countries such as Britain and many of the 2004 intake of EU member states are filing streams of applications.

And it’s not only EU member countries that are keen to take advantage of the strict criteria for name protection.

From April 2006, non-EU countries were allowed to apply: Colombia was the first to win EU protection, in September 2007, for its Cafe de Colombia coffee, while India may be the second – probably next year, officials say – for its Darjeeling tea.

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