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The whole idea of Britain exiting the European Union has complicated repercussions, even in the U.S. One of them, though, could hit the taste buds as well as the pocketbook, while paving the way for increased profits in the U.S. It all gets back to those delicious European foods and spirits that foodies the world over are so fond of, like Bavarian beer and hard Italian cheeses in the pecorino family.
The EU values those authentic artisanal foods, too, so much that they insist on their continued quality and profit through a “protected designation of origin.” While France, Portugal, and Spain had already been protecting their regional wines and foods, the 1993 EU Protected Food Name scheme brought all the other EU countries and their products into the fold. But here’s the kicker: When Britain exits the EU, whenever that finally happens, it will no longer have to uphold the EU PDOs. So, its part in safeguarding production methods and uniquely delicious products will end when Brexit is complete.
The European Commission fears the legal maneuver will undermine the protections afforded certain items. They fret that not having EU-quality protections in place will disrupt both the market and the quality of European PDOs sold in England. United States manufacturers, on the other hand, would love nothing more than to have the UK lift EU-era protections for any post-Brexit U.S.-UK trade deals.
Like anything that concerns Brexit, the legal challenges and implementations are a headache on an epic scale. But purists, economists and U.S. industry leaders alike have their eye on this piece of the Brexit puzzle. Whoever dreamed Britains exit from the EU could threaten the authenticity of French champagne in Britain? While it may be pretty far down on the list of issues for politicians, people with a taste for authentic luxury and international food find it very important indeed.
The ABCs of PDOs
A PDO and its sister, the protected geographical indication, or PGI, are a legal framework for EU products. Both rely on the fundamental principle of “terroir,” meaning the characteristics of food depend on being grown or produced in a certain area. “Terroir” also refers to a food conveying a sense of the place through its taste and might involve an exclusive or specific soil, climate or traditional artisanal production methods. For the PDO, geography can provide the distinction, but it can also be more reliant on the area’s history, lore or reputation. Basically, if an EU product is PDO or PGI, it can only be produced in that region using the established methods, with all the ingredient production and labor taking place in that region. If those standards aren’t met, a producer is not allowed to call their product by the POD or PGI name, whether that’s Comté cheese from France or Tenerife honey from Spain. The distinctive sign indicating an EU POD or PGI designation might also go on a certain type of wine or a Styrian scarlet runner bean. One great example: Certain Italian olive oils that include olives grown in a certain region and oil produced with centuries-old local know-how.
According to the European Commission, the PDO and PGI are recognized as intellectual property, much like a screenplay in the U.S. The PGI in particular “play an increasingly important role in trade negotiations between the EU and other countries,” the EC website declared. “The EU supports better protection of geographical indications internationally due to the increasing number of violations throughout the world.”
Britain won’t protect but will still be protected
While you’d think Britain would be nervous about leaving the protection afforded by EU PDOs, that is not the case. The UK has 69 agri-food products already protected and they will continue to receive protection for geographical names after Brexit. That is EU policy: it protects allows for the protection of geographical names from non-EU countries.
Britain is very proud of its PDO foods, with the Great British Chefs website having produced a series of articles and reviews titled “PDOs and beyond: Foods with protected status.” Some of the UK’s PDO treasure trove includes Jersey Royal potatoes farmed for more than a century by the island of Jersey locals and British Fenland Celery PGI that’s grown in the peat of Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, and Suffolk. But here’s the thing: Those protections will still be in place. It’s Britain’s post-Brexit protections of its former EU fellow countries agri-foods that are at issue.
How protected foods could meet the same fate as feta
EU efforts to protect geographical agri-food and beverage treasures could be harmed after Brexit is complete. Granted, the UK has pledged to establish its own method of protecting geographical names after its EU exit. But no one expects a UK-only policy to come up to the EU’s extensive and carefully observed standards. EU countries can see the potential pitfalls already. At least one EU country has already stated its worries that UK producers, freed from the EU, will start tagging products with geographical names willy-nilly.
And the U.S. will probably play a sort of upstart/agitator role in the transition. The States are already known for freely tagging foods like “feta” and “parmesan” despite any EU protections. If the UK tries to negotiate trade deals with the U.S., it might be pressured to import products produced by upstarts like the U.S. and Canada but labeled with previously protected EU names. Of course, if the UK caved, that would leave the EU less likely to make trade deals with the U.S. if it couldn’t maintain its geographic protections. Who will win? That, like the final timing of Brexit and the immediate and long-term fallout, remains to be seen.