Initiatives such as the Protected Food Name scheme can give suppliers a unique selling point, argues Caroline Flint

Readers of The Grocer know how important decent food is to the British public. It is one of the last things people cut down on when money is tight.

There are good reasons for this. Food and drink bring friends and family together. It's a little pick-me-up after a hard day, and an inexpensive treat when things go well.

Having said that, during a recession it's more important than ever for retailers to offer consumers the right products at a quality level they can trust. Yesterday, the EU gave food producers and retailers a way of doing just that with its EU Protected Food Name Scheme.

I love regionally produced food, and look out for it when shopping. British food and drink has a rich history - with many products associated with a particular area. From Cornish pasties to Melton Mowbray pork pies, these products have a distinctive quality people look for.

From this week, shoppers will be able to tell from the label whether they're getting the real thing, as all PFN-registered products will carry a mark of provenance.

Food producers can apply to the EU to register the names of their regional or traditional recipe products. It's a bit like getting a patent on an invention, in that it prevents others from copying the product and using the name. It enables the producer to put a label on their foods that guarantees the authenticity and origin of their product.

To receive protected status, food and drink producers need to show that their product has specific characteristics or ingredients, often linked to a certain geographical zone. The UK currently has 37 products registered, including Stilton cheese, Kentish ale and Cornish clotted cream. A further 40 applications have been made and the Government is keen to see more of our unique British foods protected. I know many food retailers already support local food producers. Encouraging them to apply can only benefit retailers and producers alike.

This scheme is just one more answer to those who question the value the UK gets from the EU. It's also a clear counter argument to those who feel EU membership takes away from being British. The scheme shows the opposite is true. It helps protect our Britishness, by ensuring our products are not undercut by cheap, inferior copies.

I recently talked with Stilton producers about how protection under the PFN scheme has affected them. Only six dairies in the East Midlands, using a centuries-old recipe, are licensed to produce blue Stilton. The PFN scheme gives the producers - and those who retail the product - a unique selling point.

This is just the latest in a long list of ways the EU is helping provide consumers with guarantees of food quality through safety and hygiene measures to regulations on additives and clear food labelling.

It's worth remembering that 10% of all UK jobs (3.5 million) are there because of our trade with the EU. Through EU membership, British manufacturers have tariff-free access to half a billion EU citizens - the largest trading bloc in the world.

Taking full advantage of measures such as the PFN scheme can give producers and retailers the edge they need not only survive, but thrive. Surely that's worth raising a glass of traditional ale to.

Caroline Flint MP is minister for Europe.
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