Last week, Marcus Fysh, the hard Brexit-supporting Conservative backbench MP sent out a tweet evoking a post-EU Britain where we could enjoy American feta cheese and Chinese businessmen could quaff English champagne.
I found this tweet maddening as it highlighted some Brexiteers utter ignorance of current food protections and that by breaching them, British exports could be seriously endangered.
Let’s start with the American Feta. What Mr Fysh does not seem to realise is that American ‘feta’ is a completely different product to the genuine Greek cheese. Greek Feta is usually made from goat’s milk (and occasionally sheep’s milk). The American version is made from cow’s milk.
American cheese, although there are some exceptions to prove the rule, is generally regarded as terrible.
Then there is the use of the term Champagne. This has already been the subject of a long and bitterly fought trade dispute between America and France. In fact a solution was only negotiated once the EU became involved and used its scale to exert influence on the US government.
Champagne has a PDO, a protected designation of origin. This means that the use of the name champagne can only be applied to sparkling wines from that region of France. The EU has negotiated with other administrations around the world to ensure that other wines do not use the term.
In America, some wine makers continued to use the term champagne to describe their wines. In 2006 the EU and the US governments agreed that all new wine production would stop using the term champagne. Wine that had already been produced could continue to use the name until stocks were exhausted.
As with most international agreements, there is a legal loophole. This relates to the treaty of Versailles signed at the conclusion of World War One. The treaty contained a clause to deal with a dispute on the naming of wines in France and Germany. The US government was a signatory to the treaty but the US senate did not ratify the wine clause.
What this means is that US wine producers who have been in continuous production since the 19th century can continue to use the term Champagne as long as they use the statement ‘California Champagne’.
In the 1920s, America went into the prohibition era. The sale and consumption of alcohol was all but banned (some individuals could get a certificate from their Doctor stating that they could consume alcohol, on prescription, for health reasons!).
What this meant was that the vast majority of wineries were shut down by the US government. A handful, who were producing for export only, survived.
Even after prohibition, the US wine industry struggled. It went into a steep decline and only recovered in the 1970s.
There are a handful of Californian wine producers (I can only find four) that can continue to use the term ‘California Champagne. As most US wineries only date from the 1970s, they cannot use the term.
It is also worth mentioning that ‘California Champagne’ is a different wine from that produced in France. French champagne is a wine made from Chardonnay or Pinot Noir grapes. ‘California Champagne’ tends to be made from Zinfandel grapes.
Of course, the term ‘California Champagne’ can only be used within the United states. One winery bottles its export product under the term ‘California Sparkling Wine’.
Mr Fysh also fails to recognise the disparity between the size of the French wine industry and that of the UK. UK wine production is a growing niche sector. French wine production dwarves the UK industry. Fysh is expecting an industry which employs around 1200 people to compete with one which employs twenty times that number. It is like saying Morgan cars are a direct competitor of Ford.
There are effectively three layers of protection for speciality regional foods within the EU.
Products such as whisky are protected by a specific EU directive (the Spirit Drinks Directive). Whisky is defined as; “grain alcohol matured in oak barrels for a minimum of three years”. Scotch is given additional protection in that the maturation process must take place in Scotland.
Then there are PGOs. These are protections where the location of the food production is protected. For example, Scotch Beef and Welsh Lamb must be reared and produced in Scotland and Wales respectively. Often it is the place of production alone that offers the protection.
Finally, there are PDOs. These are protected designations of origin where there is a specific recipe, production method or list of ingredients which is representative of a particular geographic area. Foods with PDOs include Parma Ham, Parmesan cheese, Melton Mowbray Pork Pies, Stilton Cheese, Rutland Bitter, Arbroath Smokies, Cornish Dairy Ice Cream and the Cornish Pasty.
To use a name with a protected designation of origin, it must follow the declared production process AND it must be produced within the declared geographic area. For example, a Melton Mowbray Pork Pie must have its crust moulded around a wooden dolly, not rolled out with a rolling-pin; the pie must be produced within the specified area around the town of Melton Mowbray.
There are around 80 UK foods which are given EU-wide name protection. Until recently, there were campaigns to add further UK foods to the PDO/PGO list. For example, in Scotland, campaigns were started to get both Dundee Cake and the Forfar Bridie PDO protection.
Geographic protections guarantee product consistency and quality. They create a marketable branding identity. They can add a price premium. They can help to protect jobs and artisan production.
Most geographic protections have arisen from campaigns by producer groups, consumers and local people. Many such groups have fought for years the ensure protected status.
And then along comes Brexit.
With six months to go until the UK leaves the EU, there is little solid information as to what will happen to protected name status after Brexit. The UK government has stated that it intends to create a separate system of food protections. The EU has put protected food descriptions near the top of their demands as part of the exit settlement. The EU has stated that it will not revoke existing UK food name protections within the bloc after Brexit. However, if the UK does not reciprocate, that position could change.
However, six months to go leave insufficient time for protected food producers to plan for life outside the EU.
Clearly, the UK government can regulate as to what happens within the UK market. It is questionable whether it will have the negotiating heft to demand that similar protections exist outside UK borders.
Food name protections are a factor in the UK negotiations at the WTO. And the sharks are circling.
In New England, where Cornish fishermen and tin miners emigrated in the 18th and 19th centuries, pasties are a common food. Producers in that part of the United States want to apply the description Cornish to their products.
American distillers have already stated that they want to reduce the prescribed maturation period for whisky from three years to two. They want to mature whisky in metal tanks, not oak barrels.
Asian whisky producers want to describe their products as ‘Scotch’.
So what happens if Mt Fysh gets his wish? What happens if the UK accepts American Feta and sells sparkling wine to Asia with the description Champagne?
The likely impact on UK exports to the EU would be disastrous. EU states would simply refuse to allow UK production into their markets. Bear in mind that the vast majority of UK food exports go to Europe. UK foods containing ingredients such as ‘American Feta’ would not be allowed into our biggest export market.
Then there is the impact on UK producers. If American distillers flood our market with 2-year-old gut rot; if Chinese distillers start producing ‘Scotch’ for their domestic customers; the impact on the Scottish distillery industry will be disastrous.
With his crass, and frankly insulting, tweet, Marcus Fysh is putting at risk premium food exports and thousands of UK jobs.