Can a Protected Food Name help British producers?

http://www.golden-promise.co.uk provides a list of stockists.

Without the emphasis on geographical link, TSGs concentrate instead on the aspects of production, be they ingredients to methodology, which define the traditional nature of a product.

One of the most useful aspects of any PFN registration is that it usually gets producers working together rather than against one another.   My experience with Slow Food presidia has shown me that how effectively they do this is the single most significant factor in their success or otherwise.

Presidia share many of the characteristics of the PFN scheme.  They are aimed at preserving historically significant products that are endangered by modern production and distribution methods.  As with TSGs they begin with the definition of the critical aspects that define the traditional nature of the product.  Where Presidia differ is that this protocol is heavily scrutinised to ensure quality, in terms of taste and sustainable, ethical production methods.  Interestingly most Presidia also register as a PDO under the PFN scheme.    My observation from products that are registered both under the PFN scheme and as a Slow Food presidium is that the former is always a much watered down version of the latter.

Let’s take Cheddar Cheese as an example.  Slow Food has long championed the benefits of cheese made from raw milk.  The problem with pasteurisation is that in addition to killing off harmful bacteria it also kills those that give the cheese its distinctive character.   All of the world’s truly great cheeses are unpasteurised.  Some of the other critical factors in traditional artisan production include the use of milk only from the farm’s own herd and the use of traditional animal rennet.  To briefly explain the significance of these to quality, the quality of the cheese is inextricably linked to the quality of the milk and the feeding requirements to achieve the right milk might change on a daily basis, dependent largely upon the weather.  It is hard to exercise this level of control if the milk is being produced elsewhere.  Then there’s the matter of traditional animal rennet.  Many cheese makers are reluctant to lose the potential of the vegetarian market, but the fact is that even natural (rather than chemical) vegetarian options impart their own, slightly bitter, taste.  It might not concern a lot of people, but it is exactly in this way that the traditional characteristics of food become eroded over time.

So, with the Artisan Somerset Cheddar presidium there are only three producers but they in turn are part of the much larger West Country Farmhouse Cheddar PDO.  The aim of a presidium is to persuade more producers to return to traditional production methods so that they can join up, it is not a protectionist measure.   Whilst the presidium producers find merit in belonging to both schemes,  citing the combined promotional power of the PDO as its main benefit, they freely admit that when it came down to agreeing the production standards for the PDO the lowest common denominator quickly became the rule.  Whereas the presidium protocol had the opposite effect.  I think every producer had to make some change to their existing methods, in some cases initially with a degree of reluctance, but eventually in complete agreement that they are all now making a better product.  It is this commitment to continuous improvement, a healthy bit of competition between them whilst at the same time being able to work together under the banner of Artisan Somerset Cheddar that has made this particular presidium so successful.  Crucially the protocol also provides an excellent tool for educating the public about the cheese.

So, for me, the lack of any indication of quality, remains a serious flaw in the PFN scheme.  If we link this back to the importance attached to regionality, it could well be that other European countries perceive quality through a geographical link.  Certainly this was the conclusion that Jamie Oliver appeared to reach at the end of his Italian tour where he had been frustrated by the Italians lack of readiness to try any variation on the recipe that had been handed down through the generations.

However, the quality assurance that is meant to come with appellation contrôllée or its equivalents in the wine world has already been questioned and tested.  The rise of the so-called Super Tuscans, which led to revisions in the criteria for the Chianti DOCG amongst others, is perhaps the best known example.  Writing in Decanter magazine last year, Maggie Rosen provided another example when she reported that sparkling wine sales in the UK had grown exponentially in recent years, outpacing Champagne in volume growth.  She cites research from Mintel, which showed sparkling wine sales up 44% by volume since 2002 compared with a 24% increase in Champagne sales.

However so far, most of the PDOs that have been registered in Britain appear to have had protectionism as their main aim and the numbers of anomalies that this throws up in terms of any meaningful quality indicator are legion.   For example, some may remember a whole episode of Lenny Henry’s sitcom Chef that was devoted to discovering some hidden away, illegally produced, unpasteurised version of Stilton since the PDO itself had ruled that henceforth only pasteurised cheese could be called Stilton.  There is now however an unpasteurised Stilton in all but name.  Because it cannot be called Stilton it goes by the old name for the town, Stichelton.   Now all that remains to be seen is whether the quality of the unpasteurised version will tempt Stilton producers either to review their PDO classification (not an easy task) or jump ship and begin making Stichelton themselves!
Other cheese examples that highlight the problems in the PFN scheme: firstly Single Gloucester Cheese, which actually stipulates only that the producer must own a herd of Gloucester Cattle, not, as most people would interpret, that they have to use the milk for making the cheese.  That loophole has been well used.  Then there is Beacon Fell Traditional Lancashire Cheese.  Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire is widely regarded to be a far superior (and more authentic) example of Lancashire cheese, yet because of the geographical limitation claimed by Beacon Fell, would not qualify to join this particular PDO.

So, can a Protected Food Name help British Producers?

To return to the question this article was aiming to answer, I guess I am saying a qualified “yes” – the scheme could help British producers.  The qualification relates to the extent to which producers and those promoting the scheme are prepared to approach it as a vehicle that can improve quality and help educate consumers about why this is worth paying more for.

This qualification is however a big one, because I know I am at odds here with Irene Bocchetta, who has responsibility for promoting the PFN scheme in Britain, and who disagrees that quality should be the issue.  PFNs are, she maintains, about understanding our food history.  That is a desire that I can readily support, but still question whether it will be sufficient to ensure its success in Britain.  The value of a good story has long been recognised by the marketing people, and for farmers to survive they need to develop some of this marketing know-how.  But do we really want to reduce the potential of the scheme to just a marketing tool?  I think producers owe it to one another to put some more substance behind it.

Suzanne Wynn

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