A Champagne by Any Other Name

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EU quality schemes protect agricultural products tied to certain areas against food fraud.

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Is that bottle of fancy sparkling wine a champagne, or just a bottle of fancy sparkling wine? In America, champagne is a generic term for such wines. But in the European Union (EU), champagne is a protected designation for wines grown in France’s Champagne province with specific conditions for manufacturing processes, such as grape pressing and vineyard practices.

The EU Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and Protected Geographical Indications (PGI) programs cover products that have “a specific geographical origin and a reputation,” including wines, food, and other agricultural products. Examples of products with PDO and PGI designation include Italian gorgonzola cheese, Dutch gouda cheese, Greek olive oils, and French thym de provence herbs. Obtaining such a registration protects against potential imitators in the EU by providing a label with the designation.

The EU aims for the policies to protect “the names of specific products to promote their unique characteristics.” For PDO products “every part of the production, processing and preparation process must take place in the specific region,” whereas for PGI products “at least one of the stages of production, processing or preparation takes place in the region.” Through both programs, the EU intends to minimize food fraud that affects the safety of food as products move through international supply chains.

This Saturday Seminar reviews several issues arising from these EU quality schemes:

  • A 2018 EU Commission proposal would alter the PDO definition of a “designation of origin” to consider human factors—production, processing, and preparation—only “where relevant.” The EU Commission purportedly believes this revised definition would simplify and clarify the EU’s quality schemes, but Andrea Zappalaglio, senior research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Innovation and Competition, disagrees. He argues instead that “the human element will always be relevant.” In addition, Zappalaglio asserts that the revised definition is inappropriate as it is rooted in already considered and discarded ideas, conflicts with the traditional understanding of terroir, weakens the PDO program, and clashes with the Lisbon Agreement for the Protection of Appellations of Origin.
  • In an article published in the International Journal on Food System Dynamics, Tomáš Sadílek of the University of Economics, Prague reports that the countries with “suitable soil, climate and natural conditions for the production of high-quality food products,” such as Italy, France, and Portugal, hold the highest number of products registered under the EU’s quality labeling systems. As such, Sadílek asserts that the labeling systems benefit consumers and producers alike. According to Sadílek, the labeling systems permit producers to enjoy “fair competition, protection, and promotion of their products.” In addition, the labeling systems empower consumers to make informed purchasing decisions.
  • Wine producers use Denominations of Origin (DOs) on labels to differentiate their wine and convey specific information about their wine’s quality to consumers. In a recent article, Florine Livat of Kedge Business School, Julian Alston of UC Davis, and Jean-Marie Cardebat of the University of Bordeaux investigate whether the existing DOs provide useful quality signals for the typical wine consumer. Using Bordeaux wines as a case study, Livat and her co-authors find that consumers “cannot decipher the quality attributes the different DOs are meant to signal.” They suggest that there are too many DOs—57 in Bordeaux alone—and that they are too complex for the typical consumer to understand. In short, “the current large number of DOs might create more information problems than it solves.”
  • Geographical indications (GIs) that protected local goods in the United Kingdom (UK), such as blue Stilton cheese and Scotch whisky may disappear following the country’s withdrawal from the European Union, Craig Prescott, Manuela Pilato, and Claudio Bellia suggest, noting that “there would be no legal provision for GIs in UK law.” Their article in the journal Food Policy also highlights how the UK’s efforts to preserve these pre-existing GIs “runs counter to the demand from some that Brexit means that the UK should become its own ‘independent trading nation,’” and that the country “is ‘Europeanising’ its law, food and international trade policy” by maintaining these legal protections.
  • In an article published in British Food Journal, Delphine Marie-Vivien, Aurélie Carimentrand, Stéphane Fournier, Claire Cerdan, and Denis Sautier discuss how GI specifications are created from the “bottom-up” by groups of producers of a product, as compared to those created by a governing body, such as “organic agriculture” or “fair trade.” Because GI specifications require producers to represent their products as relating to a specific geographical origin, Marie-Vivien and her co-authors focus on “if and how the concept of representativeness of the local community and of those entitled to apply for the GI specification is enabled by the national legal frameworks on GIs in several countries.” They argue that “representativeness and self-management by a producers’ group is not the ideal solution.” Instead, they suggest transparency of the producers’ group, negotiation of compromises, and the inclusion of arbitrators to resolve conflict within the group. Marie-Vivien and her co-authors conclude that “one way to overcome the challenge of heterogeneity is embedded in the rules of the specification itself, which can be drafted in a way that avoids too much contrast between the stakeholders, for example, by restricting the distance between the milk collection and cheese making units.”

The Saturday Seminar is a weekly feature that aims to put into written form the kind of content that would be conveyed in a live seminar involving regulatory experts. Each week, The Regulatory Review publishes a brief overview of a selected regulatory topic and then distills recent research and scholarly writing on that topic.