British foods that form part of the nation’s culinary heritage need European laws to protect them from British imitators, Chief-Exec.com has been told.
Instead, their future has been left in limbo by Brexit and the UK Government’s failure to meet a 2015 election pledge.
Melton Mowbray pork pies and Dorset Blue Vinny cheese are two of the 73 British foods that currently have European Protected Food Names (PFN). The Conservative Government has been highly supportive of their protection and at the last general election Liz Truss, the then Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) Secretary of State and now Justice Secretary, promised to increase the number of protected British foods to more than 200 by 2020, within the lifetime of the present parliament.
But, according to Matthew O’Callaghan, the chairman of the UK Protected Food Names (PFN) Association, that promise appears to be “dead in the water”.
“I fear Brexit will be used as an excuse for the lack of resources to act on this initiative and achieve this target”, said Dr O’Callaghan yesterday.
Producers and manufacturers based hundreds of miles from the area where the protected food originates can be particularly damaging, as the use of lower quality ingredients and methods can compromise the traditional brand.
“The [EU] protection enables local suppliers to survive and thrive on the quality of their protected speciality”, said Dr O’Callaghan, who is also chairman and founder of the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association.
“We have needed to stop Melton Mowbray pork pies from places such as Wiltshire and Shropshire.”
Local food producers engage in the PFN scheme with some trepidation. Sometimes fierce competition over generations needs to be replaced by collaboration, to share recipes and publish secret know-how to build a consensus and describe in detail their gastronomic speciality.
The average time to gain PFN status is five years. For the Melton Mowbray pie it took 11 years due to the need to deal with legal appeals. Engagement in the process can be hard fought and not without its costs. For new entrants, the timescale puts it beyond the expected departure date of the UK from the European Union.
However, the prize is that the food can only be produced as described by the regulations in terms of ingredients, geographical location or both. The collaboration between companies can even lead to further improving the quality of the speciality foods.
Before embarking on the PFN programme, food producers need to know what future measures will be used to protect their food names. The PFN Association has repeatedly sought clarity from the Government. Despite representing major exporters and bringing together members with a combined turnover of more than £1 billion, they cannot find the same access to Government that is given to large companies such as Nissan.
“There is irritation and even resentment with some producers that the Government are bending over backwards to meet the needs of large multinationals, while little is done for the small businesses that form the bedrock of the UK economy”, said Dr O’Callaghan.
A Defra spokesperson told Chief-Exec.com: “We are still a member of the EU and continue to engage with EU business as normal, which means the Protected Food Names scheme remains in place.
“These products are extremely important to our reputation as a great food nation and we will work to ensure they continue to benefit from protection in the future.”
But, the PFN Association is yet to receive a response to the letters it has written and seeks more detail and commitment.
“We are working to raise our profile through the Small Business Federation, Chambers of Commerce and local MPs,” said Dr O’Callaghan.
Other measures could also be introduced to protect traditional foods as national assets. In Japan there is a scheme for supporting “Living National Treasures”, providing financial support to individuals who are “Preservers of Important Intangible Cultural Properties”.
In the Brexit negotiations, as reported on Chief-Exec.com, certain industry sectors have made a case for special treatment. British foods that form part of the Great British heritage need protection to survive. If a producer’s know-how disappears, it could be gone forever.
Break out the Blue Vinny
The Dorset Blue Vinny is mentioned in the novels of Thomas Hardy and has had a place in the pantry of many of the county’s farmhouses for centuries. That was until 1938 when the Milk Marketing Board brought about its “official” demise – although the contraband cheese existed decades later.
Thirty five years ago, farmer Michael Davies resurrected the old recipe of the Dorset Blue Vinny that was originally made from the skimmed milk left over after the cream had been removed for butter making. It is this lower-fat raw material that gives the Blue Vinny its characteristic hard texture.
Emily Davies, the daughter of Michael, says that this know-how is an important part of Dorset heritage and is being carried forward by the members of the Davies Family who are actively building a modern country business round this ancient product. The assurance offered by both the Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG) scheme and as the very first British product with a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) – two of the three European PFN designations – has been important for the family to develop their business, Ms Davies told Chief-Exec.com.
By John Egan