The lack of comprehensive evaluation of the European Quality Product certification scheme throughout the years has opened the door for industrial producers to benefit from the system, questioning the superior quality of the product holding the certification. In contrast, small-scale producers have encountered difficulties in obtaining quality certifications and some traditional productions are getting lost.
A study, carried out by Slow Food, has revealed significant heterogeneity among the product requirements for EU quality certification, which created the gaps in the system, allowing goods that have little connection to the place of origin or traditional methods to be granted the quality certification nonetheless. Slow Food, which presented the first part of the study on cheese in September 2019, is currently evaluating meat products. A full version of the study will be presented this autumn.
Since 1992 the European Union has established the system of “quality schemes” with the aim of registering and protecting the most significant food products and identity of the territories.
For consumers, this certification is meant to be a guarantee of quality; for producers, it is a way to promote their products and obtain a premium price and for communities, it strengthens the link with the territory. The mechanism is the following: the production protocol of a product is established after an agreement between a group of producers, which must then be approved by the national Ministry of Agriculture before it can be granted the certification by the European Commission. Any producer who follows the rules established by the production protocol of the Geographic Indication can then obtain the certification.
Slow Food supports the certification system, which can help protect the best agri-food products, establish high production standards and safeguard the special and complex mix of culture and geographical pedoclimatic characteristics. When a consumer purchases a product with the PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) and PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) trademark, they are paying a premium price because they expect higher standards than average: a better taste, a clear indication of the origin of its ingredients, primary ingredients produced with low environmental impact, high animal welfare standards and quality of its feed, little and artisanal processing, and the absence of additives and preservatives. In light of the inconsistencies among production protocols, we asked what is it that EU quality schemes actually guarantee, and whether it is in line with the consumers’ expectations.
In a study on EU quality schemes, Slow Food analysed the production protocols of all PDO and PGI cheeses in Europe, looking at aspects such as the origin and production methods of the primary ingredients including the animal breed used – whether it is a local adapted ancient breed, or a widely common highly productivity one; the animal feed – local grass or imported GMO crops, the treatment of the milk– pasteurized or raw. Next, we analyzed the processing methods including the type of rennet used – which can can be from indigenous or industrial origin, the number of milkings processed in the same production batch – using only fresh milk of the day or mixing different batches of up to three days, the type of additives and enzymes – rely on chemical substances or on natural processed for production and conservation–chemical natural; the type of milk used –powdered milk of unknown origin and with little nutritional value versus fresh local milk. To Slow Food, each of these criteria are essential when producing cheese.
The results showed a strong discrepancy in the level of detail of the specifications: while some are extremely well detailed including high-quality standards and very precise rules, others are superficial, leaving room for the use of poor primary ingredients and industrial processes. Astonishingly, almost 60% of the production protocols give no indication regarding the use of powdered milk, and in nearly half of cases, no particular breed is required for the product to obtain the certification.
Slow Food believes that protecting a traditional product requires guaranteeing the production conditions that have constituted its reputation and identity. The primary ingredient must reflect the territory on which it is produced, which means that in the case of animal products, the wellbeing and diet of animals are paramount.. The absence of stricter rules at European level added to the complacency of the Member States leaves room for the industrialization and standardization of production of cheese and meat products.
Slow Food is currently carrying out a second phase of the study to cover all PDO and PGI meat products. The results do not appear any better than for cheeses: here as well the protocols are heterogeneous and tend to leave important aspects without regulation The full results will be published in Autumn.