Public Service Review: European Union - Issue 18
We shall not label in vain
17 October 2009
Mariann Fischer Boel, European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, explains how Europe's traditional regional delicacies can be better defined through clear labelling
In my travels around the European Union, I never cease to marvel at the amazing variety of fantastic food and drink I have the great privilege to sample. This embodies better than almost anything else Europe's tremendous diversity. Yet despite the differences from north to south and east to west, the common denominator is the unparalleled quality of European products.
The world is getting smaller as trade increases. Increasingly, European farmers are under pressure on price from lower cost producers of bulk commodities in emerging markets. Our major competitive advantage is the quality of our food and drink products. The EU's agri-food sector has acquired its well-deserved reputation thanks to decades, even centuries, of commitment to excellence. Our farmers can build on this reputation to sustain their competitiveness. But to do this, they need to communicate better with consumers about the qualities of their products. And there is much the EU can do to help.
On 28th May, we adopted a paper setting out the principles of the European Union's food quality policy for the years ahead. We make a number of recommendations, which we hope will form the basis of legislative proposals in the course of 2010.
First, I want to see much greater awareness of where agricultural ingredients of food were farmed. EU farmers meet some of the most stringent farming requirements in the world. As a matter of basic farming practice, they must respect tough regulations on environmental protection, minimum animal welfare rules, and tight restrictions on the use of agro-chemicals and veterinary products. We can be proud of the label 'farmed in the EU' and this kind of place-of-farming labelling on all agricultural products helps connect farmers with consumers.
Secondly, marketing standards should be simplified. All products placed on the market should reach the standard of sound, fair and saleable quality. Many consumers recognise and use marketing standard labelling terms such as 'class 1' fruit and vegetables, 'extra jam', 'virgin olive oil' and product definitions like 'semi-skimmed milk' and 'chocolate'.
The future of marketing standards is not in doubt. However, there are questions. How far should marketing standards be obligatory – requiring traders to use marketing definitions even if they want to use different standards? And, who should develop detailed marketing standards in future? We have considerable scope to reduce obligatory marketing standards to a minimum, and require only those product definitions and labellings that are necessary to avoid consumer deception. For the detailed labelling terms, I should like to see stakeholders play a far greater role, developing for themselves the detail of product classes and value-adding terms.
Thirdly, the quality logos and certification schemes need to be simpler to use and easier to understand. Across the EU, farmers use their skills to give their products individual qualities that add value. We need to make sure that information about these value-adding characteristics and farming attributes gets through to buyers and to consumers. This will allow our farmers to get a fair return for their considerable efforts. And it will help consumers to make genuinely informed choices.
As any shopper knows, the number of different labels and logos on display in a supermarket can be rather baffling. To an extent this diversity is to be praised; it shows that farmers can produce for every consumer choice and demand. But I am concerned by the amount of private bureaucracy in some of these schemes. If an enterprising farmer secures a contract to supply two supermarkets in different EU member states, is it really necessary that separate certification, inspection visits, and form-filling is needed for each? And does the substance of every scheme always match the image presented to consumers? It is high time to develop 'good practice' guidelines for these numerous private certification schemes that have sprung up around Europe. Consumers need to have a clearer idea of exactly what they are getting when they buy this type of certified product.
The EU manages directly several quality certification schemes, notably the schemes for geographical indications and for organic farming. They are valued by consumers and producers alike and help promote quality products. But they can also be made easier to understand and more efficient to operate.
For geographical indications, do we really need three separate schemes – for wines, for spirits and for agricultural products and foodstuffs? We can improve efficiencies by merging these into a single register, while preserving the specificities needed for each product. We can also clarify the rules and streamline procedures to make the system more efficient and bring down registration delays.
The geographical indications instrument is a unique and valuable tool for marketing quality products and supporting rural development. Only products from the geographical area, made in conformity with detailed specifications crafted by the producers themselves with their traditions and savoir faire, can be described with the name. The system is open to all in the sense that any producer can establish himself in the area and benefit from the scheme. It is very different from a private right trademark, or even a certification mark, that tells the consumer nothing about quality and that can be licensed to others, and bought and sold as any private right.
For these reasons, I want to preserve the unique nature and benefits of geographical indications, and resist calls to convert it into a private right by vesting it with a corporate owner or requiring users of geographical indications to register or seek authorisation from an owner every time they want to use and advertise the product. Some countries have such restrictive systems, but we do not, and we must keep it that way.
For organic farming, and for many other certification schemes, I am concerned by the emergence of 'national champion' certifiers. Instead of all operators working together to promote the single organic concept, I am concerned that consumers are getting a misleading message that one organic standard is better than or worse than another. We must put a stop to this needless confusion. I am in favour of giving consumers extra information – such as particular animal husbandry practices followed – about a particular product, provided it is true. But the criticism of other certifiers' organic standards, even by implication, must end. That is why we intend next year to relaunch the EU organic identity with a new logo, currently the subject of a public competition, that will be compulsory for all EU-produced organic products. That way, consumers will see that, whatever claims are being put forward, the product conforms to the single EU organic standard.
The geographical indication and organic schemes have proved their worth. They have made a significant market impact in key value-added market segments. However, one EU scheme has not made the grade. That is the traditional specialities scheme, which, with only 20 names in 17 years, is a poor shop window for the EU's traditional products. We must find a better and simpler way to identify and market Europe's diversity of traditional agricultural products. We will examine the potential to reserve the term 'traditional product' and encourage national schemes to identify regional specialities, in a way compatible with the single market.
Several new EU schemes are just around the corner. The Council and Parliament want us to study the feasibility of extending the Ecolabel, currently used on industrial products like household cleaners, to quality food products. I have some concerns that in the food sector, ecological concerns are predominantly served by the organic scheme, which of course also protects the terms 'eco' and 'bio' exclusively for organic products.
I am more optimistic about the prospects for a 'product of mountain farming' label to identify and guarantee products produced in mountain and highland areas from animals and crops raised and grown in mountain regions. This would reserve a potentially valuable marketing term for producers who face some of the most difficult farming terrain in the EU, and also prevent the mountain image from being purloined for non-mountain products.
The Commission is also working hard on development of animal welfare labelling across all sectors and will produce a communication on this subject later in the year. With all of these potential new schemes, we in the Commission must above all ensure coherence between EU schemes, as well as efficiency and simplicity in each scheme's operation.
The proposals we have made are based on several years' debate with stakeholders and many months of hard work. They draw on the 560 contributions we received in response to our 2008 green paper. The communication document marks a step change in agricultural product quality policy – covering marketing standards for all farm products, as well as the value-added quality products described by EU and private certification schemes. We will in future need to ensure that farmers have a range of tools, mainly labelling and certification schemes, that enable them to inform buyers and consumers about product characteristic and farming attributes. At a time when consumers want to know more than ever what is in the food they buy and how and where it was produced, I believe our initiative will provide plenty of food for thought. I look forward to a lively debate.
At the end of this process, I believe we can do much to further enhance the standing of Europe's rich farming traditions.