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Britain’s finest produce faces long, hard road to gain legal recognition of its name in Europe

They might be just two fledgling cheeses, but Traditional Ayrshire Dunlop and Orkney Island cheddar could soon have a mighty ally – protection from the European Union. The Dunlop and the Cheddar (which, presumably, will upset those in the West Country who believe cheddar comes only from near the Somerset village of that name), are among the latest British applicants for Protected Food Name status, which gives them a legal defence against imitation.

If successful, they will join the likes of Blue and White Stiltons, Yorkshire forced rhubarb and Isle of Man Manx Loaghtan lamb in being recognised. Like much that comes out of Europe, it’s not quite as simple as it seems. Those who meet the criteria, jump through several EU hoops and survive the lengthy application process are awarded one of three titles: Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) and Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG), each of which confers special status upon the holder. At present there are about 1,000 products with EU protection from imitation, and another 300 in consultation.

The UK has 44 protected products (the impending designation of Cornish pasties will make it 45, and Cumberland sausage 46). While there are another 30 at various stages of the application process, some have been going a long time. Part of this is because of the lengthy process – about two years. After that the European Commission can ask more questions and demand further consultation before bestowing a brand with a protected status. In 1996, Newcastle Brown Ale became one of the earliest British products to be granted PGI status, which meant that it had to be brewed in Newcastle.

Eleven years later it became the first product to lose the award, after it moved its production base to Gateshead and then to Yorkshire. A status application for Jersey butter is yet to be approved because of (among other issues) a disagreement over whether it could come only fromthe island of Jersey or from Jersey cows.

The lengthy and complicated process is designed to stop spurious claims and protect the interests of other parties whose business could be harmed. “We speak to every applicant before they apply to see whether their product is well-known enough to protect,” says Irene Bocchetta, the EU Protected Food Names manager at the food consultants ADAS. “The first question I often ask is, ‘What’s the reputation you want to protect?’.”

Two of the forthcoming applications are from Northern Ireland – Lough Neagh eels and Armagh Bramley apples – and Yorkshire Wensleydale cheese is also being reviewed. Producers and refiners of things such as natural gums and resins, hay, essential oils, flowers and ornamental plants and wicker are all also eligible to make a claim, while a forthcoming application from Shetland wool will be the first of its kind in Europe. Critics may argue that it is merely an opportunity for brands to raise prices, but it has support from many in the food industry.

Double Michelinstarred chef Tom Aikens said Britons should be celebrating our culinary history and success stories. “We do have a very good base of suppliers and supplies in the UK,” he says. “A lot has been done recently, but we need more to highlight the great produce we have in the UK.” Britain still lags far behind other Europen countries. “We’ve trodden different paths in our food journey,” MsBocchetta says. “Italy and France have always managed to document their food histories, for the UK, it wasn’t quite like that. We’ve had to remind ourselves of our artisanal abilities.”