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EU’s agri-food heritage under threat from labelling imbroglio

by gary cartwright
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At the beginning of June, the European Parliament formally adopted its position on the reform of the EU’s Geographic Indicator (GI) scheme, throwing its weight behind a raft of new rules aimed at safeguarding the bloc’s heritage agri-food products. The move has been welcomed by a variety of industry stakeholders, signaling the EP’s support for a more sustainable, competitive, and integrated rural market.

However, one prominent MEP has highlighted that the announcement represents “rare good news for our farmers”, tacitly drawing attention to the plethora of impending challenges from other food labels which could undermine the benefits of a beefed-up GI system. In particular, the Irish government has ruffled feathers with its decision to mandate health warnings on all alcoholic products sold in the country from 2026. The seemingly interminable saga surrounding Brussels’ quest for a bloc-wide front-of-package (FOP) labelling standard continues to rumble on. 

Given the myriad of benefits that GI products can bring to the EU economy, those in charge must find a way to solve these thorny issues quickly – or else jeopardize the short-term competitiveness and the long-term trust of European farmers.

Parliament wants greater protection for regional produce

The parliamentary announcement has called for control of GI produce to remain in the hands of the executive, offering greater legislative protection for regional food and drink items such as Champagne, Prosciutto di Parma and Manchego cheese. In particular, MEPs have tabled proposals such as the automatic closure of online domains which unlawfully offer GI items, tighter controls surrounding processed foods with GI ingredients and a streamlined approval process for GI applications.

The Parliament’s latest announcement has been warmly received by a variety of different actors, including a regional GI body, an organization representing winemakers, and a pro-European political group. With over 3,500 GIs registered within the bloc, the market has an estimated value of almost €75 billion and is seen as a crucial component of promoting a circular economy whilst simultaneously bolstering consumer confidence.

Ireland acting out of turn

But just as the EU agri-food industry appears to have put out one potential fire, another has broken out over in Dublin. The Irish government has just signed into law the requirement for all alcoholic beverages to carry serious health warnings, including a caveat that they could potentially be carcinogenic. As a country in which around 1,000 new alcohol-related cancer cases are reported each year, the move is being hailed by Health Minister Stephen Donnelly, who said he looked forward to other countries following their lead – as previously happened with indoor smoking laws.

However, not everyone is as enthused about the legislation. The global drinks industry has decried the move for the unfair market climate it could create, as well as the dubious science underpinning the claims. European winemakers have been notably noisy in their criticism, which is perhaps of little surprise given that France, Italy, and Spain comprise 47% of global wine sales. The Italian Society of Environmental Medicine (SIMA) has claimed that the move “has nothing scientific about it, and the official numbers of research institutes confirm this”, while a prominent industry wine group and the EU’s own Agriculture Committee have both launched objections, as well. It seems set to have strong repercussions for the GI sector in particular, given that wines comprise over half (€39.4 billion) of its worth.

No end in sight for FOP controversy

Meanwhile, the EU’s protracted search for a bloc-wide FOP labelling scheme has hit more roadblocks. Romania’s recent ban on the Nutri-Score label – once considered the clear frontrunner among the candidates under consideration – has rekindled the debate and captured its polarity in a microcosm. Although being championed by certain countries such as France and Germany, many others are against the scheme, with even French cheesemakers voicing their concern, too.

As well as individual member states, trade associations and even nutritionists have outlined Nutri-Score’s shortcomings in no uncertain terms. By focusing entirely on ingredients and neglecting production methods or even portion sizes, Nutri-Score’s algorithm produces warped results and blatant mislabeling, 20% of those listed in the D and E categories are natural foodstuffs widely regarded as beneficial to health when consumed in moderation. Indeed, award-winning investigative health journalist Gary Taubes has even cast aspersions on the idea of an FOP label altogether, claiming that it is merely symptomatic of “doubling down on the conventional wisdom” and categorically stating that it “will not help”.

One step forward, two steps back?

The ongoing uncertainty caused by the FOP labeling system is not only uninspiring but untenable for both producers and consumers. The Irish alcohol question in conjunction with the dilly-dallying of the EP on the question of FOP means that while hope springs eternal, the optimism about the parliament’s stance on GI protection will be difficult to maintain. 

As such, Brussels must find quick but coherent compromises to these controversies, particularly given the instrumental role that GI-protected producers play. Aside from their sizable cumulative market value, GI items comprise 15.5% of overall EU agri-food exports and a GI designation has been found to boost the sales value of a product by an average of between 20% and 50% – and even as much as 500% in some case studies.

To avoid taking two steps back immediately after their short shuffle forward, the EU must act swiftly, and decisively. It’s not just the continent’s culinary heritage that is at play but a larger signal to European farmers that there is still reason for hope. 

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