Cheese 2019: Quality Product Certification Lingers Between Marketing and Tradition Preservation

A study conducted by Slow Food reveals that the European quality product certification process lacks a comprehensive evaluation, which has led to extremely diverse results and opened the door to the large industry players to market their food as quality products. On September 20, a conference on the quality product certification was organized at the Cheese Festival in Bra, Italy, where European Union officials, representatives of European non-governmental organizations and Slow Food producers discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the  European system of geographical indications.

Geographical Indications at the Top on the new Commission’s Agenda

The new European Commission which will start its five-year term in November has put the European system of geographical indications, known as the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) or the Protected Geographical Indication (PGI), high on the agenda. Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen has indicated that she wants to strengthen the system of geographical indications as they are key to maintaining high food quality standards and preserving gastronomic and local food heritage.

“We need to strengthen protection and controls to continue streamlining the systems of geographical indications but one area that we want to look at in particular is the producer groups. We have already started a project which aims to develop so-called Geographic Indication Identity Cards. With an identity card, we hope to make the producer groups identifiable and the product information better known so that it will be possible to better enforce the protection of product names,” said Branka Tome, Deputy Head of Unit on Geographical Indications of DG AGRI of the Commission.

The EU official emphasized that even though the system of geographical indication should preserve biodiversity, protect the countryside, and help farmers to stay in rural areas, it cannot be completely harmonized. The producers themselves should be at the forefront of deciding which products and which product specifications have to be preserved.

Meanwhile, Laurent Gomez, General Secretary of  AREPO (Association of European Regions for Products of Origin) noted that consumers use 6 seconds on average to make food choices. “Geographical indications can help make these decisions, but we have the responsibility to certify what is behind these labels.”

Wins and Loses of Geographical Indications

Small-scale farmers, who play a crucial role in preserving traditional and natural production, often lack the resources to benefit from the system of geographical indicators;  lengthy processes and high application costs are among the main reasons.

“International and local corporations often take advantage of the system of geographical indication for product marketing reasons and often bypass agroecological and other sustainability requirements for the sake of product quantity,” said Audrius Jokubauskas, a Lithuanian cheese producer from the Slow Food Network, adding that in certain EU member states, including Lithuania, some large producers have “created stories about a tradition that never existed” to be able to get the PGI label.

Meanwhile, Jannie Vestergaard, an expert in small-scale food production, from Slow Food Copenhagen, explained that many producers in the Nordic countries choose regional labels of origin and quality instead of opting for the EU quality system. However, she emphasized that positive examples of geographical indications exist. For instance, Lammefjordskartofler potatoes which are grown in fjords and are unique because of their thin skin have helped the potato producers to not only protect the tradition but the market too.

First Study on Cheese Production Quality Certifications 

The EU regulatory system of geographical indications was introduced over 20 years ago. It aims to protect and promote traditional local agricultural products with the highest identity value. However, a recent study carried out by Slow Food and presented during the conference by Maria Teresa Barletta, demonstrated significant differences in product specifications which are needed to obtain the PDO and PGI certification: while some producer groups have presented a very detailed story of their product, others have drastically oversimplified manufacturing techniques and may remain very unclear about the use of additives or processing aids. For instance, less than half of the cheese quality labels included in the study state that only natural rennet can be used in the cheese production process, and 62 percent of the products do not provide information about additives. The broader study conducted by Slow Food which involves meat products, will be presented next year at the Slow Food’s largest flagship event, Terra Madre.

The 12th edition of Cheese is dedicated to raw milk cheeses and artisanal dairy products. Cheese 2019 also sheds light on nitrite- and nitrate-free charcuterie and sourdough breads. The event will host an Italian and international market with over 300 exhibitors. The international biennial event is organized by the City of Bra and Slow Food with the support of the Piedmont Region.

Indre Anskaityte, Slow Food Europe

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