Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Of course, we believe in consumer choice but ....

Sadly, consumers might not make the right choice. They might decide to buy whatever they want rather than what they should buy. So, they have to be guided. That’s what the EU free market is all about. Sensible guidance. No, no, no, it is not about protecting producers, who have no wish to compete.

Take the whole subject of “protected designation of origin”. The idea is that specialist, preferably small and medium-sized producers who have been labouring away trying to produce delicious food and drink in the time-honoured fashion, should not see their business destroyed by unscrupulous multi-nationals (or nationals) who cynically use the well-known name to promote their own “inferior” product.

The reason for those quotation marks is obvious: experience tells one that small producers do not necessarily make good things and large ones do not necessarily make bad ones. Also, emphasis on time-honoured fashion may well preclude change, development and improvement.

The law, however, and, specifically, the law of labelling (a nightmare if ever there was one) is a blunt instrument, ever open to sectoral influence.

One such case has just reached the ECJ. Back in 2002 the Commission decided in its wisdom that the word “feta”, a specialized cheese made out of goat’s or sheep’s milk, must have a protected status. And, surprise, surprise it is to be protected as a Greek name, where, the Greeeks say, it has been produced for 6,000 years.

Undoubtedly, some form of goat’s milk and sheep’s milk cheese has been produced on the territory that is known as Greece for that long. Whether it actually was feta as we know it, remains open to doubt.

More to the point, feta cheese has been produced for decades in other countries (not least in Turkey and Bulgaria, though the Bulgarians use the Turkic word brynza, and very nice it is, too). Specifically, it has been produced in Denmark, who even manages to export some to Greece, and in Germany.

There is, even, a small, artisanal feta producer in Britain. The Yorkshire Shepherds Purse Company is precisely the sort of small food producer that was supposed to be protected by all this regulation. Of course, they do not need protection, being able to make excellent cheese.

Neither do they need the extra burden of having to re-label all their cheeses and going “through a massive re-merchandising process and reorganisation”, as the company’s founder Judy Bell put it.

The Danish and the German governments have appealed against the decision to the European Court of Justice, their case being that the word feta, unlike, say champagne, is not linked to any locality. As long as it is clearly indicated where the cheese comes from, the Greek producers, small, large and medium, should have nothing to complain about.

One could go further and say that, as long as there is a clear indication where the produce is from, one would not need protected names of origin, anyway. That, however, might be a decision too far. Even the fairly straightforward case the ECJ is faced with will not be decided till autumn.

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