Despite the opposition and sheer disbelief of UK trade bodies, the European Commission looks set to forge ahead with plans for a new quality logo. Michael Barker reports
The European Commission has been doing its best to live up to its tabloid reputation as a meddling autocratic machine in recent weeks.
First it unveiled in February to howls of derision from producers a new student-designed organic logo that will become obligatory on all pre-packed EU organic goods from July.
Now it has greenlighted a study into a generic 'European quality logo' to be applied to agricultural goods produced entirely in the EU.
The new logo would allow producers to "display their commitment to quality, food safety and respect of all European standards", according to the Agriculture Committee.
The Commission plans to draw up legislative proposals before the end of the year that will then be consulted and voted on, although it has stressed it is too early to talk about whether it will be voluntary or compulsory or what the prospective cost could be.
One thing the EC will admit is that it is walking into a potential minefield. "The fundamental problem is that there are so many different labels out there, so it would be useful to have a single logo with a European feel of quality," says a Commission spokesman. "But if other schemes work it would be wrong to say they cannot be used as well."
What are the chances of the logo ever seeing the light of day? Strong, if the noises from Brussels' top brass are anything to go by.
New Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolo is keen to find new ways of promoting EU agriculture, while new EU Health and Consumer Commissioner John Dalli has pledged to place a greater emphasis on making labelling clearer for consumers.
Despite the EC's enthusiasm for the new logo the proposal has been given short shrift by producers. "I would suggest the industry would be very concerned and against this idea, but we all know MEPs do daft things on a regular basis," says Fresh Produce Consortium chief executive Nigel Jenney.
The European Protected Food Name scheme already gives producers an opportunity to gain a logo with a point of difference, argues Jenney. "But a generic label I don't get the message. I can't see any industry or consumer benefit."
The NFU has consulted with members on proposals for an EU logo before and it is "not wanted", stresses Lee Woodger, head of the NFU food chain unit. "We are not convinced by a generic EU logo, which we don't think would resonate with consumers," he says. "Most states would like to use a state badge rather than a 'Made in EU' logo. How does this add any clarity for the consumer?"
David Clarke, chief executive of Assured Food Standards, which operates the Red Tractor, is even more damning in his assessment. He says that the idea has "no support whatsoever" outside Brussels.
"This was rejected wholeheartedly at the end of 2008 we've been around this circle twice already," says Clarke. "The first two times it was roundly objected to by farmers, retailers and suppliers and I'm surprised it keeps getting put back on the table. It doesn't differentiate anything within Europe, and it creates a lot of nervousness about who would police it."
Scottish Lib Dem MEP George Lyon goes even further, arguing that an EU quality logo would not only mean nothing to consumers but it could also flout international law as it might contravene WTO ideals of a global marketplace.
"A European quality logo is neither known nor understood by shoppers across the EU," he says. "Its introduction is not only a waste of money, but may be seen as undercover protectionism and a distortion of trade rules."
So far the idea of a Continent-wide fresh food logo is just that an idea. But if anyone doubts the seriousness of the EU to implement such a scheme, they need only look at the speed that it brought the organic logo to market, with the mark going from concept to legislation in little more than a year.
It seems certain to meet with vociferous opposition, but Brussels' desire to present a united European food front should not be underestimated.
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