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Making GI a quality mark

01-Aug-2005

Whether it is a pork pie from Melton Mowbray or olive oil from Nimes, every Tom, Denis and Haemon seems to believe their local food deserves the EU's protection from big, bad corporations.

But is it really true that a phalanx of competitors will soon be identifying their golden apples as Pommes du Limousin in order to suggest a higher quality, or that carp producers will bepiggy-backing any brand success achieved by Holsteiner Karpfen?

Yet these are among the pending 300 applications waiting to join the 720 foods and drinks already protected under the EU's geographical indication (GI) regime.

A rush to more applications is bound to happen, with MPs in the UK recently calling for producers to catch up with the rest of GI divided Europe.

Rightly so. The GI concept is a good one.

If corporations can protect their products through trademarks, why can't a region protect a name associated with a food product they have arrived at through generations of experimentation andtradition?

Producers in the town of Cheddar are well aware of what happened in their particular patch once the name was sabotaged by the Americans, Canadians and New Zealanders.

Now many want the protection the EU will give to Greek feta in 2007 by barring other EU producers of the cheese from using the name.

This offers consumers the assurance that the premium price they are paying is for a premium product and not for some ripoff using different ingredients and processes.

However, a quality mark is only as good as the ferocity of the qualifications for entry, and its enforcement, as has been clear with the forerunner to GI, the system of appellation d'originecontrôlée used by the French wine industry.

The finest appellations, such as Chateauneuf du Pape, serve as a strong pointer of quality for consumers. But the existence of more than 300 appellations in France has been less helpful, withconfused consumers - rarely masters of the subtleties of each appellation - quickly able to discover that the finest wine from one regional appellation may still be a remarkably unpalatable wine.

The weight of GI applications could see the EU replicate this weakness by awarding a supposed quality mark to goods that are barely better than average. This is especially so when the system isstructured to be widely applied and, at the same time, producers are tempted to leverage the system as a means of trade protectionism against importers.

This has created an open door that has hindered the EU in winning international recognition for the system.

The most recent example of GI's laxness was the Czech brewer Budejovicky Budvar, which attempted to keep Anheuser Busch out of Europe by claiming GI status for "Bud".

The EU granted the GI status but reason prevailed. Courts in Austria and Hungary have ruled the name of the company's branded beer was not a reference to the town of Ceske Budejovice, as wasclaimed.

The GI system also runs the risk of curbing the very quality it seeks to support.

The rules require that GI approved areas stick to the specifications outlined in their applications, including keeping production and sourcing within a defined geographical area.

Thus, producers of Parma ham may only use pigs reared and slaughtered in the region and cured by "air reaching it from the Versilian Sea which, tempered by its passage through the olive grovesand pine forests of the Val di Magra, dried in the Appennine passes and enriched with the chestnut-perfumed air".

Pig production is thus (theoretically) a limiting factor on Parma ham.

The scale of these constraints has seen the owners of Newcastle Brown Ale are now requesting removal of their GI status because they would be unable to keep their brand name when they moveproduction two miles away from the town.

With so many drawbacks, and 40 per cent of the EU's citizens saying they are willing to pay a 10 per cent premium for specially designated products, why not let the market decide whether theywant to spend more on sausages from Morteau or oatmeal from Macroom?

Consumers can read the label if they really care, as many do. Thus advertising and labelling laws could achieve many of the same ends as the GI system intends.

However, if the EU is determined to dish out a quality mark, it needs to do better in its execution.

The production standards need better monitoring, and the rules must be geared to achieving the best quality - no matter the higher cost that this would entail. That way, GI could ensure consumertrust.

The current system is unlikely to. For, as one industry insider commented, in noting that Parma ham production probably outstrips the country's porcine population: "Pigs can fly in Italy".

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