Concerns over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership allowing cheap US food into the prized EU market
We’re well aware that the post-Christmas period is the traditional time of year to regret recent overindulgence and to embark optimistically on new, healthier eating regimes. Therefore the last thing you may want to read at the moment is another article on food. However, this is important: your pasties are under attack. Or at least they could be, according to commentators concerned that the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership free trade pact between the EU and US will result in a flood of low-cost, low-quality American food dressed up as prestige European comestibles.
There is, needless to say, much more to TTIP than this – it’s a vast, all-encompassing behemoth of a plan which, after 18 months and 7 rounds of talks, has barely got past the introductions and pleasantries stage. Everything is still to play for over the next couple of years, but there is already a near-impenetrable fog of myth, rumour, counter-rumour and acronyms. Huge issues are at stake (such as whether Investor-State Dispute Settlements are a useful business tool or the fifth horseman of the apocalypse) but the most strident opinion out there is focussed on more specific matters: various national interests lobbying for exemption or special treatment include the UK National Health Service, the French film and television industry, US financial services, and (most importantly) the European food and beverage sector.
Put simply, food is very important to the EU, in a way that surprises Americans who don’t quite get why Europeans feel their produce is so superior and US food so dangerous. To Americans, food names are simple categorisations of stuff: hamburger, wiener, Black Forest gateau… To Europeans, they’re quasi-sacred nomenclatures that speak of a deep, chthonic link with land and tradition. So strong is this worship of food this side of the Atlantic that the EU has instituted a three-tier system of protection for food brands: PDO (‘Protected Designation Of Origin’), PGI (‘Protected Geographical Indication’) and TSG (‘Traditional Specialities Guaranteed’).
This system is designed to reward quality food producers and protect them from cheaper, low-quality rip-offs cashing in on their cachet. It ensures that only sparkling wine from Champagne gets to use that name, and that all Cornish Pasties come from Cornwall. But the trouble is, it’s all a bit hit and miss: why should it be so important that Plymouth Gin only comes from Plymouth, when London gin can be made anywhere? Why is a Nürnberger more deserving of protection than a Frankfurter? Sure, it must be nice for local producers to be able to say their delicacies are special, but it strains credibility when all and sundry pile in to claim elite status for ever more obscure or specific products.
Take CHIRIMOYA DE LA COSTA TROPICAL DE GRANADA-MALAGA for example – can it be true that these custard apples, from a very specific 40-mile section of the Spanish Mediterranean coast, are so special and so distinguishable from other Annona cherimola that they deserve a PDO? Or how about NEWCASTLE BROWN ALE whose former PGI restricted production to that fair city so that Scottish & Newcastle themselves had to apply to cancel it when they relocated across the Tyne to Gateshead! You can understand the Yanks’ bemusement…
The PDO system could do with some reform and perhaps TTIP will be the catalyst for change. While there’s strong opposition to the prospect of the EU being forced to accept all-American ‘Black Forest’ ham (but no arguments so far about Black Forest gateaux), ‘Cornish pasties’ from Michigan, or ‘Champagne’ from California, even Christian Schmidt – German Minister of Agriculture – recently admitted that the price of a mutually beneficial trade agreement may be that ‘we can’t protect every sausage and cheese anymore’.
The difficulty will, of course, be deciding where to draw the line and agreeing which brands are going to be up for grabs, a problem further compounded by the likelihood that US producers will want access to the big names like CHAMPAGNE and PROSCIUTTO DI PARMA, while probably not being so fussed about riffing off SAINTE-MAURE DE TOURAINE (a delicious full-fat, unpasteurized goat’s cheese from the Loire) or ZGORNJESAVINJSKI ŽELODEC (a Slovenian sausage consisting of air-dried bacon and pork stuffed into a pig’s stomach – probably nicer than it sounds ). How many of these ‘low-hanging fruit’ (a somewhat confusing metaphor from EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström) will be sacrificed for the sake of a deal? How much will European producers and their MEPs be able to stomach when their prized PGIs are prised from them?
Food is undeniably important to people, and brands are undeniably important to food. High passions are aroused when people feel their culture is threatened and they will go to extraordinary lengths to defend their livelihoods. To an extent, BUDWEISER should be a warning – we’ve already covered this multi-decade spat between Anheuser-Busch and Budweiser Budvar which shows what happens when big money and dearly held brand values collide. Nothing’s going to happen with TTIP for a year or two, but watch this space – it’s going to be a real bun fight (possibly involving Geraardsbergse Mattentaartjes – yum!)