EU to strengthen geographical protection rules

Related tags European union Eu

European Union farm ministers have agreed a number of changes to
the rules governing geographical indications such as Rioja and
Parma ham, allowing producers to argue their case for preparing and
packaging the product in the region of origin.

Rules governing the use of place-related names for food products made within the EU were tightened yesterday after Farm Ministers agreed on a new set of measures.

Many food and drink products across the EU already have Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status, which means that they must be made in the location whose name they carry or where they have traditionally been produced.

But the new regulations have now closed a loophole which previously allowed products carrying PDO status to be packaged in other parts of the EU - a loophole which has already led to several high profile court cases.

Among the most prominent of these was that pitching UK retailer Asda against Italian Parma ham producers, who argued that the supermarket group was breaking EU rules by slicing and packaging its ham outside the Parma region.

The Consorzio del Prosciutto di Parma association, which represents the 200 or so Parma ham producers, suffered a major blow last year when the European Court of Justice (ECJ) supported​ Asda's right to slice and pack the ham outside Italy, but the new rules are likely to lend much greater support to its argument.

However, the regulations do not give blanket approval for producers to insist that their PDO products be packaged as well as produced in their region of origin: they must be able to prove that there is some qualitative reason for packaging the product there.

The quality aspect has already been used convincingly by wine producers in Rioja who defended their right to bottle the product in Rioja itself: before then, wine had often been shipped in bulk from the northern Spanish region to be bottled elsewhere - in particular the UK - before being sold.

As well as changing the rules governing existing PDOs, the Farm Council also agreed to extend the PDO regulations to cover a number of other products, including mustard and pasta.

The new rules are not to every Member States' liking, however, with Denmark most notably voting against the proposals. This is unsurprising given the recent EU decision to 'protect' the name feta by ensuring that it can only refer to cheese made in Greece, even though Denmark produces more feta than Greece and there is only scant historical evidence to show that the cheese was first created in the Mediterranean country.

Despite these internal differences, the real battle for protecting place and product names is likely to take place outside the EU itself. Brussels is currently urging its trading partners to recognise these product names in a bid to facilitate negotiations at the World Trade Organisation, but the task will not be easy.

The Farm Council also discussed negotiations with the US and Canada regarding wine and spirits, which highlighted the problems facing the Brussels authorities.

Other wine and spirit producing countries have long used names such as Cognac, sherry and Champagne to describe products made far away from these countries but which are similar in taste and production, and the EU has been relatively successful in recent years in persuading countries (both within the 15 Member States and outside) to use alternative names (such as the more generic brandy, fortified wine or sparkling wine).

But the US is digging in its heels, refusing to accept both European labelling legislation and rules on winemaking techniques (such as the 'méthode champenoise' which can only be used by sparkling wine producers in Champagne, despite the same techniques being used elsewhere).

Producers in France, Spain and Portugal are keen to ensure that their products are protected against locally produced counterparts in the US, but the negotiations with Washington are likely to be lengthy, given the US' insistence that terms such as sherry and port are now generic. The OIV (Office International du Vin) is likely to be called in to arbitrate in the matter, but it is clear that protecting names within the EU is likely to be far easier than persuading countries outside the trading bloc to follow suit.

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