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Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 March 2006, 14:13 GMT
EU reheats speciality food scheme
By Alix Kroeger
BBC European Union reporter, Strasbourg

Italian cheesemaker
Cheeses form the largest category of protected foods
The list includes Stilton cheese and Gorgonzola, cognac and Whitstable oysters, Kalamata olives and Spreewald gherkins.

These are some of the hundreds of European regional foods which the EU takes special measures to protect from imitation.

From next month the rules are being simplified, and the catalogue is likely to grow even further.

Among the British products likely to apply for future protection are Cumberland sausages and Glamorgan (cheese) sausages.

If you seek to protect regional specialities, this is the way to do it - it stops imposters and helps local businesses
Bob Spinks, Arbroath smokie producer

The changes come in the wake of a ruling by the World Trade Organization. It partially upheld a complaint from American and Australian food producers, who said the labelling was just another form of trade barrier.

As part of the shake-up, regional specialities from these countries - and others outside the EU - may also start getting European recognition, and the same protection from imitation.

Raw and cooked

The most famous example of a protected product is probably champagne. If it does not come from the Champagne region of France, it cannot be called "champagne": it has to be called something else, such as sparkling wine.

PDO, PGI and TSG food marks
PDO: Produced, processed and prepared in a given geographical area using recognised know-how
PGI: The geographical link must occur at the production, processing or preparation stage
TSG: Highlights traditional character, either in ingredients or means of production
Other examples are feta cheese, Breton cider, Newcastle brown ale and Parma ham.

Most of the designations apply to processed products, such as cheese, meat or wine.

Jersey Royal potatoes qualify because they are only grown in Jersey, but Brussels sprouts are excluded because they do not just come from Brussels.

The designations are big business: one study estimates they can add an 18% premium to a product.

"Consumers are changing their approach," says Euro-MP Eluned Morgan (UK, Labour, Wales).

"There is a degree of enthusiasm from consumers to buy products with a clear regional identity."

Fish processor Bob Spinks decided to form an association and apply for the EU quality mark for the Arbroath smokie, after he saw companies marketing fish which purported to be Arbroath smokies but, he says, neither looked nor tasted like the genuine article and were not produced in the same way.

Consumer confidence

It took three years to get the designation, but now only fish produced within 8km (5 miles) of Arbroath town centre can be legally described as an Arbroath smokie. And he urges other producers of regional specialities to apply.

When you have BSE, foot and mouth, and now avian influenza, people become more interested in where their food comes from
Neil Parish MEP
"If you seek to protect regional specialities," he says, "this is the way to do it. It stops imposters and helps local businesses."

The designations can also help build consumer confidence, says Neil Parish MEP (UK, Conservative, South West).

"As the geographical indicators become more common, people will get used to the labels, and they'll begin to look for them," he believes.

And in the past few years, the traceability of food products has become increasingly important.

"When you have BSE (mad cow disease), foot and mouth, and now avian influenza, people become more interested in where their food comes from," Mr Parish says. "If it is linked to a geographical indicator, that reassures them."

Market niche

Welsh lamb is one of the products which has already been recognised as a PDO. This means Welsh sheep farmers are eligible for more state aid under EU rules to promote their product as a regional speciality.

We can only compete at the quality end of the market
Eluned Morgan MEP
The new rules should speed up the processing of applications.

At the moment it takes 18 months or more for a product to receive one of the quality designations.

"Producers across the world can produce food more cheaply than in Europe," warns Eluned Morgan. "We can only compete at the quality end of the market."

MEPs will be able to have their say in a debate in the European Parliament on Wednesday 15 March.

However, they will not necessarily affect the final outcome, as the new rules are going through under the EU's consultation procedure, not the co-decision procedure, where the parliament has a decisive voice.

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