The coronavirus pandemic poses a unique threat to some European producers of products protected under the EU’s ‘geographical indications’ quality scheme: the impossibility of making their products in compliance with the scheme’s requirements.
The Protected Designation of Origin / Protected Geographical Indication (PDO/PGI) quality schemes were introduced as a way of protecting the names of specific products with unique characteristics relating to where and how they are made.
- For a product to gain PDO status it must be produced, processed and prepared in one area. A well-known UK example of this is Native Shetland Wool, a high-quality sheep’s wool produced only in the Shetland Islands.
- For a product to gain PGI status it must have a particular reputation, characteristic or quality as a result of the area it is associated with and at least one step in the production must take place in the relevant area. Famous UK examples are the Cornish Pasty associated with Cornwall and, of course, the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie which originates from the market town of Melton Mowbray.
Obtaining PDO/PGI status allows producers to distinguish their authentic regional products from others on the market and protect the product’s reputation and enables them to charge a premium price. A study published by the EU Commission on 20 April 2020 which looked at economic data from 3,207 products protected by the scheme across the EU found that the sales value of a product with a protected name was on average double that for similar products without a certification.
Each product must be made in accordance with the strict requirements set out in its product specification. The unusual circumstances brought about by the global pandemic have made adhering to some of these strict requirements impossible. Italy has recently had to make temporary amendments to the specifications for some of its famous cheeses, including “Mozzarella di bufala Campana” and “Parmigiano Reggiano”  following requests from producers. Producers of the famous “Parmigiano Reggiano” cheese requested changes to the permitted milking time and an extension to the time of the curd and boiling process. Similarly, producers of “Mozzarella di bufala Campana” requested changes to allow the raw buffalo milk that cannot be processed within 60 hours from milking to be frozen for later use.
Urgent temporary amendments are permitted under Article 53(3) of Regulation (EU) 1151/2012 on Quality Schemes for Agricultural Products and Foodstuffs where the public authorities have imposed obligatory sanitary or phytosanitary measures. Under Article 6(3) of Delegated Regulation (EU) 664/2014, such amendments do not require formal approval from the EU Commission, but must be communicated, together with the reasons for them, within two weeks following their temporary approval by the relevant national authority.
The UK is yet to make any temporary amendments to its specifications, but it may have to if more PDOs and PGIs are affected by the lockdown. The specification for Native Shetland Wool requires sheep to be clipped between July and August but this timing could be problematic if social distancing measures and travel restrictions are still in place. The organisers of ‘Shetland Wool Week’ have already cancelled the festival aimed at knitting enthusiasts which was due to take place between 26 September to 4 October 2020. Producers of famous British cheeses such as Yorkshire Wensleydale (PGI status) and Stilton (PDO status) could also find themselves with similar issues to their Italian counterparts.
As the UK and other countries continue to grapple with the effects of the pandemic on many industries, they will perhaps need to think about taking such measures to ensure the continued production of unique regional products.