Food & Drink: Brussels appoints the big cheeses: Stilton is a protected species, but camembert isn't. Tim Jackson sorts out the new EC regulations which will control certain foods

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Indy Lifestyle Online
DORSET Blue Vinny first came about by accident. It happened when the traditional white Vinny cheese made in Dorset farmhouses became infected with the right microbes. But it has been revived by Michael Davies, a 52-year-old north Dorset farmer, who uses modern cheese-making techniques to make it consistently blue.

Mr Davies's cheese, the only true Dorset Blue Vinny still made, is the product of unpasteurised milk, drawn from the cows in the morning because the afternoon milk is too fatty. Five or six cheeses are begun each day; between three and six months later they are ready to be transported to a handful of specialist London cheesemongers - Harrods, Neal's Yard, and Paxton and Whitfield.

But Blue Vinny is being copied. Six or seven years ago, Mr Davies remembers, a competitor from another part of the country tried to pass off some of his stock as Dorset Blue Vinny. When the local council took him to court, he argued that his cheese was carried to Dorset and stored there for 10 days or so before being sent to the shops - and he was found not to have committed an offence. Last Christmas, Stilton makers decided to market a quite different cheese under the Blue Vinny name.

Such stories are dispiriting. They show that even when imaginative producers of natural products do their best to turn out something of high quality and to convince consumers to trust it, the work of years can be destroyed in a few short weeks when a competitor borrows the name for an imitation that may share none of its unique characteristics.

Last week, the European Community's Council of Ministers did something about this problem. At a meeting in Brussels, the EC's farm ministers agreed to set up two different types of certification for food and farm products. First, a sort of appellation controlee for food, which guarantees the geographical origin of cheeses, hams, beers, mineral waters, plant-extract drinks, bakers' goods and natural gums. Second, a certificate of specific character covering those foods plus chocolate, pasta, pre-cooked meals, ice-creams, soups and bottled sauces, showing that they really are made from the right ingredients and by the right process.

The new rules will cover all EC countries. Products that have earned certificates will be able to claim legal protection from imitators anywhere in Europe - and also abroad if the EC can persuade its trading partners to recognise the system. They will also be able to carry a mark - perhaps 12 golden stars on a blue ground, though formally not yet decided - showing that they are indeed what they say.

The move has been prompted more by the economics of the single market than by culinary concerns. Without a set of EC-wide rules, individual countries might set up protectionist barriers to stop foreign products from reaching their markets.

But the bureaucrats want to do more. They say that an international system of food marks will be good for consumers, because it will give them more information about what they eat and will help them to distinguish high quality products from cheap industrial imitations.

Some might argue, however, that such rules are irrelevant. A dispute arose last year over the classification of Jaffa Cakes. Surely people decide whether to buy Jaffa Cakes according to their taste and price, rather than their name? Nobody feels conned because they are called cakes rather than biscuits.

The two regulations will come into force in a year's time. Between now and then, producers and national governments will be arguing over draft lists of products. Once the list has been agreed by the ministers, a committee in Brussels will be given the job of making sure everyone plays by the rules. In drawing up the regulations, civil servants from 12 different countries had to face a tricky issue: what to do about products such as parmesan or camembert that originally came from a single region or which have a specific character, but have now become generic?

The answer they reached has all the logic you would expect from a committee. As a punishment for their success, those two famous cheeses get no protection at all; but Stilton does, and so do Parmigiano Reggiano and Camembert de Normandie. Parma ham gets protection, despite the fact that the pigs from which it is made are usually Dutch. Anything now legally sold in EC countries - such as the Danish imitation feta cheese that so infuriates the Greeks - may continue to be sold (though it will not get the food mark).

One thing is clear: many of these decisions are entirely arbitrary. Civil servants are clearly preparing to trade names across the table - 'I'll allow Double Gloucester if you'll accept Jambon de Bayonne' - without any real justification. The fact that products now on sale may still be sold shows just how much principle had to be conceded to the reality of old- fashioned EC politicking.

But the underlying principle remains. 'Philosophically,' says Joachim Heine, the food certification specialist at the European Commission in Brussels, 'we regret that some of these names have become generic. But in future we want to avoid these kinds of problems.' He reiterates that the certification rules will not prevent new, tasty kinds of beer or sausages from being made; they will simply prevent them from getting a marketing leg-up from the name of something already on the market. 'Nobody will be forbidden to make a new cheese like roquefort; they just won't be allowed to call it roquefort.'

In one respect, the certificates will give a degree of legal protection higher than patents, trade marks or labelling rules. Competitors will be forbidden to use the protected names at all on their labels - even if they specify that the name is being used only for illustration, as with phrases such as 'Bayonne-style ham' or 'imitation Stilton cheese'. This may prove a double-edged sword; it could prevent affordable versions of gourmet products becoming available to the mass market.

Until the list of certified foods is made public, nobody can know whether the system will be a flop or a triumph. But there are pitfalls: the net could be drawn too loosely, thus letting in all sorts of indifferent food made by dubious semi-industrial processes; equally, it could be drawn too tightly, protecting only a tiny number of French sausage-makers in the mountains. Even more worryingly, there is nothing in the regulation that stipulates that consumers - surely the most qualified arbiters - should have any voice in the decisions.

But the biggest concern is one for the future. Unless the system is kept scrupulously up to date, with old products whose quality has fallen being crossed off the list and new products whose quality has risen being included, it will gradually lose its authority.

There is also a danger that names may be used entirely arbitrarily to preserve the commercial advantage of a small group of food businesses, and the high price of scarce products. The champagne precedent is an alarming one: EC officials say it has already become illegal to use the words methode champenoise on a bottle of fizzy wine from outside the Champagne district, even if the wine's origin is clearly labelled and the words are used only to explain to consumers how the wine has been made.

In recognising that it is good to give clear and reliable information to consumers and producers about products, the certification plan must be a step in the right direction. Just how big a step remains to be seen.

(Photograph omitted)