What happens to the Protected Designation of Origin scheme post-Brexit?

Paul Wheeler

The triggering of Article 50 and the formal commencement of negotiations to agree the terms by which the UK will divorce itself from the European Union will impact many areas of the food industry. One of particular concern and uncertainty is that of Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) food products.

PDO is a very important article of EU regulation. It was introduced with the aim of legally protecting foodstuffs that are uniquely a product of their region or a particular manufacturing process, and provides protected status for a wide range of food and drink products. The list of those safeguarded by the article is extensive and features all manner of popular food and drink items, including meats, cheeses, fruits, vegetables, fish, beers, wines and spirits. PDO serves to protect the quality of these products, but there is now a real fear that Brexit could serve to compromise it.

PDO protection helps to ensure that artisanal techniques used to manufacture certain foodstuffs in a specific, specialised way are able to survive in a market awash with generic replicas from large corporations. It also secures them a premium price point in the market, suitably reflecting their quality.

Such foodstuffs, however, can be susceptible to fraud, affecting not only the manufacturer but, ultimately, the consumer also. It is therefore essential that we have suitable tools at our disposal to protect these products. PDO offers a safety net to guard against fraud and it will be interesting to see how this protection is maintained or replaced as the UK commences its withdrawal from the EU.

A PDO name can be used by any business wishing to market a specific product, provided the product conforms to the correct specification. It must also demonstrate this conformity through subjection to the required verification of compliance inspection. Examples of popular UK PDO foodstuffs are numerous and include, for instance, Stilton Blue cheese, Jersey royal potatoes and Conwy mussels.

As Brexit gathers momentum, the UK will seek to repeal EU law and be free to choose and put into law its own regulations. We do not yet know how the UK government will decide on this particular statute, but we know this: it could be bad news for consumers and producers if it opts against putting the same level of protection in place as the EU. PDO is a useful tool in ensuring the quality and validity of many popular foodstuffs in the UK and both those making the products and buying them will be impacted, one way or another, by what happens next.

At Elementar UK, we are able to use stable isotope analysis to help safeguard against fraudulent adulteration. It is a technique that can be used to determine the true origin of a food or drink product and to verify its authenticity. This helps to highlight adulteration and any mislabelling of premium or protected foods, and works by evaluating the unique isotope of a foodstuff to determine its origin. Stable isotope analysis can therefore play an important role in ensuring consumers are able to trust the food they eat and, essentially, helps to guarantee the public’s safety.

However, if more and more food and drink products that have not been through the same rigorous analysis as required by PDO testing flood the market, ensuring all products are ‘true’ and authentic could become a nigh on impossible task. We are fortunate at Elementar UK to have stable isotope analysis at our disposal; everyday consumers do not.

One of the main concerns for consumers is how leaving the UK will affect the quality of our food and drink. This, of course, could go either way. But where PDO food products are concerned, there is the risk of consumers facing a deluge of new copycat products from within the UK that promise the same quality as the products they emulate, but have not necessarily been produced with the same time-tested techniques or ingredients. There is also the risk of shoppers in the UK purchasing lower-standard goods that have been produced in any other country with which the UK strikes a trade deal post-Brexit.

The counterargument, of course, is that the influx of such products could lead to the introduction of cheaper products for consumers, therefore increasing affordability for a greater number of people; something that can be particularly appealing when it comes to ‘luxury’ items such as a bottle of Champagne. However, Champagne is revered because it is produced using grapes grown in the Champagne region of France where strict rules are implemented, including very specific vineyard practices, very specific pressing regimes and secondary fermentation of the wine in the bottle. Does it not defeat the purpose of enjoying a certain type of drink if said drink isn’t strictly what it is packaged to be?

Likewise, it could be argued that the introduction of more products will result in the consumer benefiting from much more choice. But should we really be valuing quantity over quality? Especially when quality was one of the product’s main selling points in the first place?

For industrial food giants, such a move could mean an increase in revenue. Again, is this something we really want to happen? Is the success of large companies more important than the success of smaller producers that are skilled in the production of specific products, honed over many years and passed down through generations? Indeed, many people who voted to leave the European Union did so believing that Brexit would prove a boon for smaller, independent producers and farmers; based on the issue of PDO foods at least, this might not necessarily be the case.  

Producers could well see their ancient methods losing out to mass-production competitors seizing an opportunity to take advantage of these valuable product types. What’s more, they can pursue this strategy without fear of penalty.

In the long run, these practices could potentially take such a toll on smaller producers that it leads to a loss of jobs. It could also hamper their ability to operate with the success they have previously enjoyed. Should the impact be so heavy that producers are ultimately forced to cease trading, it would not only mean the loss of a handful of businesses, but the loss of truly valuable pieces of our heritage. 

Brexit’s effect on PDO food products in the UK could, therefore, prove highly damaging. Hopefully, a new structure will be put in place that offers the same level of protection as that afforded by the European Union; if not, the future of food protection in the UK will be a lot less certain.



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