In its annual report released this week, the Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries of the European Union (CIAA) called on EU legislators to separate policies on food safety from that of quality. Various voluntary schemes relating to quality should remain voluntary.
" Food safety is a fundamental and noncompetitive principle founded on Community legislation," the CIAA stated. "Once a product respects these standards, it is up to consumers to decide which product to buy depending on their income, habits, etc. Quality is therefore the responsibility of the private sector and should not be subject to compulsory regulatory measures."
The CIAA also targeted the EU's geographical indications (GI) system, a legislated quality assurance scheme, as needing a "fundamental" review. The recent changes made to the GI legislation are not enough to prevent the system from losing its credibility as a quality assurance scheme, the CIAA stated in its report.
The system's credibility is being undermined by the vast number of applications for trademark protection under the system the organisation believes.
The bloc's GI system reserves the use of the specified names to designate the origin and geographical location where agricultural products and foodstuffs are produced or processed. The protection can also refer to specific conditions relating to processing, preparation or recipe as defined by the producers.
In March the EU made changes to the GI system in a bid to comply with a World Trade Organisation (WTO) decision, which last June found that parts of the rules served to unfairly bar outside competitors from the market. The WTO finding was made after the US and other countries complained that the GI rules were a form of trade protectionism.
The GI system is broken down into classifications on protected designations of origin (PDO), protected geographical indication (PGI), and traditional speciality guaranteed (TSG) food and drink products.
PDOs, such as granted to Roquefort cheese, must be produced, processed and prepared in a given geographical area using a recognised, specified method. PGIs, such as Newcastle Brown Ale, require a link between at least one stage of production, processing or preparation and the region, place or country of origin.
TSGs, such as the Belgian cherry-flavoured beer Kriek, highlight the traditional composition or a traditional method of processing or preparation of a product.
"The large numbers of PGI and PDO products already registered, along with the numerous cases still pending remain a matter of concern for the industry," the CIAA stated in its report. "It may make PDO and PGI products more commonplace. There is also a risk that PDO or PGI labelled foodstuffs will lose not only credibility, but also their comparative advantage."
The association noted that quality is a very broad concept and has different meanings throughout the food chain. In response to a request from the European Parliament, the European Commission has launched a study to identify current quality assurance systems. The study will also assess the costs and benefits of such schemes.
In 2006 this study of quality assurance schemes will lead to an assessment of the need for Community legislation on the issue, the CIAA stated in the report.
The food industry has developed numerous voluntary quality plans and is responsible for these plans. The plans vary enormously and include different criteria and actors, the CIAA stated.
During forthcoming discussions about a EU approach to quality assurance, CIAA said it will continue to express its view that ultimately it is up to consumers to judge the quality of a product.
"CIAA requested this objective to be at the centre of the fundamental review of the EU regulation scheduled for later this year, or in 2007, which has to lead to the implementation of an efficient PDO and PGI system," the association stated. "Indeed, as value added products, PDOs and PGIs can in the coming years stimulate both growth and innovation, and in particular in rural areas. Exports of PDO and PGI products to third countries should be an opportunity for EU producers."
Under the changes made to the bloc's GI system in March, non-EU companies will no longer have to apply for registration under the system through their national governments.
They will be able to register their specialty foods directly with the European Commission, reducing the time needed for the application and approval process.
The proposed changes would also get rid of the requirement that non-EU applicants must be from countries that make equivalent guarantees on their home market and for third countries to give EU GIs the same protection.
Other changes also were made to simplify the registration process and clarify the role of EU member states in making applications. The administrative body plans to publish an outline of all the necessary information needed for registration, information and inspection purposes that will be needed in a well-defined "single document" application.
An additional proposal would require identification of the EU schemes on a food's label by use of either the PGI or PDO reference, or the EU symbol. Similar changes are proposed to the EU system for registering TSG designations.
The EU set up the GI system in 1996 as a means of providing protection for producers making specialty and traditional foods that are linked to specific regions.
The number of regional and speciality products for which denominations are registered under EU quality schemes now stands at 720. Another 300 applications are under consideration.
Protected names that have gained GI status include those for 150 cheeses, 160 meat and meat-based products, 150 fresh or processed fruits or vegetables and 80 types of olive oil.
The EU wants international recognition for the system and has applied to WTO. That application is being contested by the US, which claims the system is nothing but another form of trade protection.
In their complaint about the system before the WTO the US and others alleged that the EU's GI system discriminated against non-EU producers and therefore contravened an agreement which provides for equal treatment.
Second, the US expressed concern about the impact of GIs on prior trade mark rights, as GIs protect the name of the product itself and also linguistic variations.
In its report, the WTO panel ruled that the GI Regulation was inconsistent with TRIPs on several counts, including that the reciprocity conditions did not treat non-EU companies equally and that it restricts prior trade mark owners from filing protests against registered GIs. They also complained about the requirement that only governments rather than individuals can object to registrations.
In an application before the WTO the EU wants to make the GI standard recognised at the international level.