Food Law News - EU - 2008

Commission Speech ( SPEECH/08/667), 2 December 2008

QUALITY STANDARDS - The Green Paper on Agricultural Product Quality: Speech by Commissioner Boel

The following is the text of a speech given by Mariann Fischer Boel, Member of the European Commission responsible for Agriculture and Rural Development, to the General Assembly of AREPO (European Association of Geographical Indications) in Brussels on 2nd December 2008

First of all, many thanks to AREPO's President, Mr GENÉ ALBESA, for having invited me to your General Assembly and for giving me the chance to debate the Green Paper on Agricultural Product Quality.

People tell me that, in a number of policy discussions, I've shown a habit of saying the word "quality" not just once but three times in a row "quality, quality, quality". This is not because I have a stutter. It's because I've wanted to hammer home a message: in order to meet global competition from producers with lower costs outside the European Union, and to meet consumer demand, European farmers and agro-industry must build quality into their strategy .

But if we're asking our farmers to compete on "quality", in a sense they also have the right to ask us for "quality": high-quality policies to help them succeed.

As you know, a couple of weeks ago the Council reached an agreement on updating the Common Agricultural Policy as a whole through the CAP Health Check. So now it's time to move on to the next target: updating and improving our quality policy which is something that I'm really eager to do!

But I'm being realistic: it takes time to carry out a review properly, just as a good wine or ham takes time to mature. We need to reflect carefully and take stock of many years of past experience.

This is why I have decided to listen to you first, before giving the Commission's opinion in a Communication later next year - probably in May.

Launching the debate and listening to your opinions is the aim of this Green Paper. It basically asks: 'Which policy measures work well?', 'What needs to be changed?' and 'What else is needed?'

It's an ambitious undertaking. For the first time we're considering together all the quality policy instruments that enable the European Union to play a full and central role in supporting quality.

We have taken the farmer's and producer's perspective, and so we've included not only "European Union schemes" but also private and national food quality certification schemes because these are an important fact of life for many farmers.

In the Green Paper, we first ask for reflections on the following problem. On the one hand, European farmers follow some of the strictest farming requirements in the world - in terms of environmental compliance, limitations on the use of pesticides, and animal health and welfare. On the other hand, do we think that European consumers are informed in a systematic and effective way about these efforts, which represent a significant cost to farmers?.

This leads to an essential question, which is this: How can farmers better communicate our European farming requirements to consumers at the moment they make their purchases? Would a "European Union label" facilitate the life of consumers?

We then ask for your opinion on marketing standards. What do we need to change - and especially, to simplify? Should we alter the standards themselves or the rule-making process?

The second part of the Green Paper is dedicated to the subject engraved on the heart of AREPO: geographical indications and other European quality schemes.

The geographical indications schemes are clearly a tremendous success. In the wine sector, geographical indications are an essential marketing tool, adding value to quality wines associated with origin and specifically with the terroir where the grapes are grown.

And in addition to nearly 4000 geographical indications for wines and spirits, we now have 818 registered names for agricultural products and foodstuffs under the PDO and PGI Regulation and hundreds of applications in the pipeline.

There's ongoing interest from outside the European Union: as recently as two weeks ago the Commission received an application for a jasmine rice from Thailand.

Let me tell you that I am proud of these schemes that emphasise the diversity of European production and the richness of our traditional inheritance. I'm glad that the savoir-faire of farmers is protected in Europe and that we are fighting hard to have it recognised at international level.

But after more than 15 years of success, a review is overdue.

So in the Green Paper, we ask if any changes are needed in respect of the protection, or the scope of products covered, or the procedures for registration (do we really need 3 separate registers?). And we ask what criteria should be used to decide whether a name is generic.

I am sometimes told that the scheme might be a victim of its own success with too many names being registered. So we ask whether additional criteria should be introduced to restrict applications for geographical indications.

And we ask whether we should identify the origin of raw materials in cases where they come from somewhere other than the location of the geographical indication. For a PGI, this is a perfectly legal option, but consumers may have different expectations.

The Green Paper also covers the European Union schemes for Traditional Specialties Guaranteed, quality products from the outermost regions, and organic farming.

The last part of the Green Paper addresses the growing number of private and national certification schemes that I mentioned earlier. We are concerned about whether these schemes operate to the benefit of all stakeholders. In particular, we want to know whether they create unnecessary private bureaucracy at a time when the Commission is trying to make life simpler.

My expectation is that this Green Paper will open a wide-ranging debate on quality policy.

Of course, AREPO has now presented some ideas. Thank you for this early Christmas present!

We will look at your comments in detail in due course. Today, let me just make a few initial remarks.

Let's start with the need to publicise the PDO and PGI logos. I certainly want our fellow citizens to better recognise the logos. I acknowledge your commitment to contribute. And we already do publicise the logos in various promotion campaigns. But in the end, the marketplace will decide: logos, like quality products, need to give some value added to the consumer or they will not make an impact. I recognise that the Commission has a role, but so too do producers and operators marketing quality products.

You also want an Agency. Why not? If it is justified, of course! But you know how keen I am on simplification. So honestly, I hope you have good arguments to convince me that a new bureaucracy would really, really be necessary to deal with the 100 applications that we currently receive every year. I do admit that we had a backlog; it's my clear goal to keep managing the reduction of this as well as the waiting time.

On protection of names, we will look at this issue carefully. And at international level, be assured that geographical indications are still part of our priorities in the Doha negotiations.

And last but not least, you would like consortia to control production. Isn't that a little bit old-fashioned? Geographical indications are already an exemption to the rules of the Common Market. I hope we can encourage producers to be ambitious and develop their production for export, reaching out to markets, not reduce their horizons to local markets and the long-standing outlets.

This consultation is not a "done deal" in advance, so I don't intend to draw up any conclusions before the end of the process.

It's only after we've analysed all the contributions to the Green Paper that we will prepare a Communication for May 2009, drawing up the Commission's broad strategy.

The Czech Presidency will also organise a major conference on quality policy on 12 and 13 of March 2009 and I am pleased that quality will form a major focus of their Presidency.

It will then be up to the next Commission to present legislative proposals, if needed, in 2010.

But as you can see, that certainly doesn't mean that this Commission is sitting back in a comfortable chair, putting off the hard work until tomorrow. Competing on quality in a world of cut-throat competition is a challenge now. So now is when the policy review work begins.

Thank you.

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