Both inside and outside the European Union, businesses regard protected status as highly desirable. It is seen as one of strongest legal frameworks of its kind and UK produce companies have increasingly been taking this route. Even the referendum result has not altered this perception. Produce Business UK finds out what produce businesses can gain from securing a PGI, PDO or TSG certification
“Even with Brexit, PGI status will still apply,” Matthew O’Callaghan, chairman of the Protected Food Name Association points out. “It provides protection within the EU and elsewhere; it is accepted by the World Trade Organisation. Colombian Coffee has PGI status even though Colombia is not a member of the EU. It has to be part of a reciprocal arrangement. They protect our products, if we protect theirs.”
Anthony Gardiner, marketing director at G’s Fresh agrees. “We don’t feel there will be any threat to Fenland Celery’s protected status. In 2005, the US and Australia were successful in challenging the PGI system to have specialist products protected by international law, even if they fall outside EU boundaries.”
So what is meant by Protected Status? Within the EU Protected Status system, businesses can be granted one of three types of status:
* Protected Geographical Indication (PGI)
* Protected Designation of Origin (PDO)
* Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG).
The type of status that is granted depends on the type of food that is involved, and the way in which it is produced. The produce has to be unique to a designated area and open to any company that grows or produces the food complying with the specified definition within the designated area. Fenland Celery, Armagh Bramley Apples and Pembrokshire Early Potatoes possess PGI status whereas Forced Rhubarb and Jersey Royal Potatoes have PDO status. Vale of Evesham Asparagus is in the process of applying for PGI status and there is also an application in for TSG status for Watercress.
Possessing protected status means that those foods have legal protection against – possibly cheaper – imitation products. It gives products premium status, putting Pembrokeshire Early Potatoes and Fenland Celery on the same level as Champagne.
Fenland Celery was one of the most recent products to acquire protected status. Gardiner explains: “Our PGI status was granted in October 2013. We are the UK’s biggest producer of celery, mainly green celery, but also Fenland celery. We found that people didn’t understand the true price of Spanish celery compared to Fenland celery, which was often sold on shelves without any explanation, just at a higher price. It was a commodity. We had to make a decision as to whether to leave it for cottage gardeners or continue to grow it on a large scale. One of our team had seen a piece in the trade press calling for produce companies to apply for protected status. We thought it was a good idea.”
All applications for protected status have to go via the department for the environment, food and rural affairs (DEFRA). On applying, G’s Fresh was recommended to seek PGI specific-location status. This was because Fenland Celery has to be grown on black Fen soil using a method of cultivation known as earthing to protect it from winter storms. This style of growing has been the custom in the area for decades. In addition, Fenland Celery was regarded as a heritage product.
Cutting the roots of Fenland celery into a pencil shape
Fenland Celery is more of an artisan and specialist product. We sell Fenland Celery with more of root on it, which is cut into a pencil shape like celeraric,” says Gardinder. “It is paler, less stringy than conventional celery, slightly sweeter and is at its optimum flavour after the third frost,” says Gardiner.
Applying for protected status is not an easy task. Organisations have to provide evidence as to why a product should be protected, geographical links, details of an accredited inspection body which would be responsible for undertaking yearly checks, information on labelling, branding, production methods, proof of origin, descriptions, and area definitions. DEFRA states that all descriptions have to be very detailed including information on any raw materials, together with “the main physical, chemical, microbiological or organoleptic characteristics”.
The initial process of application lasted nearly a year. G’s Fresh had to make a very detailed case to support its application, filling in countless forms and undertaking research into cultivation within the area. Having proved its status to DEFRA’s satisfaction, it then had to prove it to the EU. In total, the full application process lasted three years. It could have been longer.
Newmarket has a long tradition of a heritage Newmarket sausage. When one company made an attempt to acquire protected status for the name, it was hotly contested by a competing business, which also claimed that its recipe was the most authentic. The arguments lasted several years before a compromise was reached.
Acquiring PGI status has proved to be of considerable marketing value for G’s Fresh. Gardiner says: “There is only so much PR you can do for celery. There is a limited window for Fenland celery in the UK, as it is available only between October and Christmas. We ran aggressive PR campaigns while we were applying, inviting writers of foodie magazines and newspapers to see Fenland Celery. This raised awareness and when PGI status was granted there was a media storm. Interest had already been aroused, and we were able to create stories about celery and cooking with celery between October and December. It has raised overall awareness.”
Having protected status gives products credibility in the eyes of the consumer. Walter Simon, a grower producing potatoes for the Puffin Produce Blas y Tir Pembrokeshire Early Poatoes brand points out that “our unique climate and soil work so well together to give us the distinctive character and flavour of Pembrokeshire Earlies. Getting awarded PGI status is great news for farmers in Pembrokeshire, but also great news for consumers. They can now be absolutely sure that when they buy a bag of Pembrokeshire Earlies they are getting delicious new potatoes that have been planted, nurtured and picked in Pembrokeshire.”
Protection of this sort also gives a product premium status as regards price. Armagh Bramley Apples regard gaining a PGI as enabling the sector to become part of a “premium food club,” a spokesperson said. “It’s a celebrated badge of authenticity. It is a trust mark illustrating that the Bramley apple or produce made from the Bramley is produce that you can be confident in.”
Fenland Celery has a price premium associated with it too. A stick of Spanish celery might sell for 89p at retail, whereas Fenland Celery might be sold at £1.49. “Chefs have been very positive and interested in the product. It is well known in Cambridgeshire, in the wholesale and restaurant trade,” says Gardiner. “Premium retailers such as Marks & Spencer, Waitrose and Ocado have been very supportive selling the brand Fenland Celery. This allows us to have packaging where we can tell our story.”
Well known in Cambridgeshire, Fenland Celery attracts a premium
Fresh produce has been much slower to seek protected status within the UK than elsewhere in Europe. According to the Food Names Association, there are 64 protected food names within the UK of which only a small number relate to fresh produce. None of the fresh produce companies involved are in Scotland. Lack of awareness and the administrative hassle are the regarded as the key reasons why the UK has so few protected names.
“We are behind other countries in protecting food names,” says O’Callaghan. “Spain, France and Germany have lots more that have this status. We are very poor in terms of what is covered, but the potential is very high. There are very few vegetables and fruits that are protected. There should be a lot more. For example Scottish soft fruit ought to be protected.”
Prior to the referendum, the UK government had been stressing the need for more companies to take advantage of protected status. In November 2015, then environment secretary Elizabeth Truss launched the Great British Food Campaign. One of the aims of that campaign was to “increase the number of Protected Food Names from 64 to 200 to celebrate the rich heritage and iconic traditions of British food and build on the importance consumers place on provenance”.
The result of the referendum has made companies more hesitant about the situation. There are also concerns that exiting the EU might lead to delays in the creation of any further food name applications. Within a short time of the referendum result being announced, Truss promised to give priority to setting up a UK version of protected status and trade associations and companies were quick to call for action to be taken.
The UK will need to sign a reciprocal agreement with the EU, thus ensuring that the issue of protected status will have to form part of any trade negotiations. Where it goes from here, depends entirely on those negotiations and whether the UK government finally votes in favour of leaving the EU. What is certain is that brands with protected status such as Fenland Celery, Pembrokeshire Early Potatoes and Jersey Royal Potatoes have an image; a branding that makes them stand out as unique and one which is worth maintaining, come what may.