This is the first article in a series of pieces decoding the European food quality labels, their modernization of production, and the damaging impact.
The European labels of food product quality, DOP and IGP, housed under the Geographic Indication (GI) are under scrutiny.
During Cheese 2019, in Bra, Italy, I attended a seminar titled DOP and IGP, conserving tradition, or just marketing? with a panel of small producers from different European countries, and Branka Tome, Deputy Head of Unit on Geographical Indications of DG AGRI of the Commission.
The seminar was based on a study by Slow Food on the (GI) schemes and quality standards of cheese production. It aligned with the research I was doing for my master thesis; but most of all, I was interested as a consumer of European GI food products, like cheeses and cured meats. Products I had categorized under the high-quality umbrella based on the belief that the claims for tradition and authenticity meant respect for the land, environment, animals, and farmers. And most of all for the romantic idea of delivering a true taste of terroir.
The conversation began with Slow Food presenting the findings of the study, “We’ve read the production specifications for the Geographic Indications designation from the dairy chain. Focusing on prerequisites, such as animal breed, what they eat, and production processes, to confirm the link these basic conditions have with an area and a local tradition and the preservation of local biodiversity and healthy ingredients. The outcomes of our research are quite disappointing.”
The data revealed hidden problems.
Terroir: The fact that only 27% of the dairy products protected mentioned the use of local breeds and none have specifications on feed opens the door to the use of ‘cosmopolitan’ or ‘international’ hyper-productive breeds — especially cows — producing milk in stables while fed grain and silage. Instead of local breeds grazing the plants, grasses, and wildflowers to produce milk reflecting the true taste of the land, or terroir, a term widely used when talking about European food products. Strike One.
“By doing so, they’re opening the way for massification, to the detriment of biodiversity and putting local breeds at risk, or worsening the situation for endangered ones,” said the Slow Food representative.
I was surprised to hear that 64% of the products don’t have any rules on the use of additives like nitrates and nitrites, preservatives, and colorants; and 58.9% have no restrictions on the use of powdered milk. So, besides not using local breeds that feed on local land, European cheesemakers use additives and powdered milk, as needed. Strike Two.
The EU commissioner took the microphone, “We’re working to make changes to strengthen GIs because they are key to maintain high food quality and preserve our traditions,” she said quickly shifting the blame to the respective countries, “the producer groups in each country and region have written and chosen to specify the quality standards for their GIs, we [the EU commission] simply approve them based on the application.” Strike Three.
How is this sustainable?
The logic behind that statement seemed moronic to me. Why create a system of quality standards without any real rules for a product to be accepted? How about implementing guidelines that enforce the use of local breeds and respectful animal husbandry? How about measurable pollution standards? Or clear laws against chemical agriculture, or the use of GMOs for feed? (We’ll get to this on the next article) How about ensuring the products are 100% from the place claiming protection? And why not enforce that production practices respect the land and food sovereignty of local communities and those in other parts of the world?
Her words floated to the producers sitting next to her on the panel, who ruffled and promptly replied. “In France, Roquefort is protected under DOP, but it’s produced by large companies,” one of the panelists exclaimed, “the GI system has been hijacked by big companies, it’s not about small producers.”
“In Lithuania, a large company proposed a fake story for a cheese they named Jugas, and it became protected under DOP. The company used a myth about a giant named Jugas to sell the idea, and now one single company makes ten thousand tons of this cheese a year,” said another.
Branka interrupted the outcries, asking for the microphone, “We have seen small farmers decline in Europe, so we have proposed new measures to redistribute the CAP [common agricultural policy] money from large holdings to small,” she said while taking notes from the emotionally escalating panel. The panelists discussed the contradictory pressure to achieve sustainable practices while trying to survive the European Commission’s push for low prices and the increase of food production to compete with large companies, putting small farmers and producers at a disadvantage.
Is it even European?
When the panel opened for Q&A I raised my hand, “If DOP and IGP certifications were built to protect European products, shouldn’t the raw materials be from Europe? Specifically from the countries or regions claiming ownership of the traditional product, rather than exploiting other countries, like Brazil for example?” This was a question I’d had for months, since the first class in EU food labels of quality when I learned the beef used for Bresaola della Valtellina, in Lombardy, comes from Brazil, yet it is protected under the IGP label.
Branka looked at me and replied,
“The WTO (World Trade Organization) allows for free trade between countries, and we simply follow the legislation.”
The representative from the Nordic countries raised her hand, smiling at me, and said, “Danish pork and Parma ham, that’s all I have to say.”
Just a few months before, in July 2019, a group of European scientists and two Brazilian indigenous organizations had asked the European Commission, to halt trade negotiations with Brazil, “to prevent a worsening human rights and environmental situation,” after the Mercosur trade-agreement was signed on June 28.
But this wasn’t the first time the WTO trade agreements were questioned. La Via Campesina, a non-profit organization formed by rural, peasant farmers from around the world, has been fighting against the free-trade deals backed by the WTO for more than 25 years, due to unfairness to rural and indigenous communities and their food sovereignty. I knew at that point I wasn’t going to receive a different answer; it was a rehearsed, massively politicized conversation far beyond the limits of my research in the Industrialization of Italian Food Culture and its Environmental Impact.
I left the seminar emboldened. I’d feared my research was out of line by questioning the GI certifications and the laws that supported it. Instead, I saw I wasn’t the only one outraged by the incoherence of a system that has decimated small farmers and producers while enriching large companies using the label of tradition to sell industrialized products. A brilliant concept. A concept difficult to dispute because tradition is a romantic idea. Tradition portrays memories of a past to which we feel we belong or wish to belong; especially as we grow apart from our own humanity and live in an increasingly industrial world. We yearn for traditions as a way to connect us back to our human essence, our culture, and our place within this earth.
It is not all bad
It would be unfair to say that all DOP or IGP products are deceiving, but those highly publicized and commercialized don’t align with the idea of quality consumers have. I’ve learned during the two years I’ve spent in Italy, in classes and researching for my thesis, that there was more behind those labels than the stories told through marketing. I have collected stories from both sides. From visits to small pig and salumi producers; to the uncomfortable visits to a pig CAFO and a massive salumi factory, when I decided to become a social vegetarian.
The second article takes a deeper look into DOP labels. Read here.