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Kitchen Notes

European Designation of Quality Labels

by Michael Chu
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Almost 15 years ago, the European Union (EU) introduced a system of certified labels to guarantee to consumers that certain products meet a "quality" standard. There are over 700 products available that carry at least one of the four labels - Protected Designation of Origin, Protected Geographical Indication, Traditional Specialty Guaranteed, and Organic.

When the EU certifies the product to a "quality" standard, they don't mean that is tastes better, is more healthful, or lives up to a certain culinary expectation. It means that it has fulfilled the requirements of authenticity - that is, the product came from where it says it came from, was made in the traditional method, or was made with mostly organic ingredients.

Various products can be registered by the groups producing the good. They do this by filling out an application detailing the steps and specifications that make a particular product unique to that region and submitting it to their governing country. If the product is deemed to qualify, it is then passed onto the EU Commission and, eventually, may be added as a registered protected product.

PDO - Protected Designation of Origin
The most stringent of the "yellow" labels, the PDO label is used on a product that is certified as having taken place in a specific geographical area. The product must be exclusive to the region that is designated and the raw materials used to create the product must also be from the defined area. An example of this is Parmigiano Reggiano which must be made from cow's milk from a particular region in Italy (Provinces of Parma, Reggio-Emilia and Modena, and a few neighboring areas) and be made there as well in order to carry the PDO label. Another example is Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena) which must be made from grapes in Modena, fermented and matured a minimum of 12 years there (25 years to qualify as "extravecchio"), and bottled into 100-mL bottles in order to receive the label.

PGI - Protected Geographical Indication
Some products are also associated strongly to a geographic area, but not all the ingredients may come from that region. These products may carry the less stringent (than the PDO) label of PGI. The products carrying the PGI label must have at least one of its steps take place in the geographic region whose name it bears. Black Forest Ham (Schwarzwälder Schinken) is a product that can be found bearing the PGI label if it is produced in the Black Forest region of Germany using traditional recipes and finished by smoking over pine wood chips from the fir trees of that region.

TSG - Traditional Specialty Guaranteed
The least stringent of the three, TSG labels certify that the product has been made with a long standing traditional method but is not linked to any specific geography. Serrano Ham is a product that used to be only made in the mountains of Spain, but is now made throughout Spain (and possibly the rest of the world) in artificially controlled environments designed to replicate the conditions found in the mountains. The ham produced within Spain and following traditional curing techniques is eligible for the TSG label.

While the first three labels are tied to a specific product family and are exclusive (a PDO outranks a PGI outranks a TSG), the Organic label can be applied to PDO, PGI, TSG, or unlabelled products. To qualify for the label, at least 95% of the ingredients of the product must be organically produced.

Most types of foods and beverages traditionally prepared in Europe can apply for Designations of Quality. The exceptions are wines and spirits (which are protected under separate EU legislation).

According to the EU, the goal of these labels is to prevent "imitators" from passing for genuine products. Since most of the products contain the name of a geographic location, it does make sense to label the product in such a way as to determine whether or not the product was made traditionally or with modern techniques. However, the EU uses titles like "Designation of Quality" and "Guarantees of Excellence" when referring to these labels, which I feel gives the wrong impression. In my mind, it is not necessarily the case that preparing foods in a traditional fashion will result in a superior product (or even one that most approximates the characteristics of a similar product produced a century before) because not adapting or evolving methods will often result in a different product because of the ever changing nature of our ingredients which are living and changing from generation to generation. In any case, these labels should give those who wish to try products produced as close to their traditional methods an easy way to determine which ones to buy. If anything, the labeling should help the artisan producers of the various European regions by calling out their products.

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Written by Michael Chu
Published on February 15, 2007 at 09:22 AM
7 comments on European Designation of Quality Labels:(Post a comment)

On February 20, 2007 at 06:58 AM, an anonymous reader said...
"In my mind, it is not necessarily the case that preparing foods in a traditional fashion will result in a superior product (or even one that most approximates the characteristics of a similar product produced a century before"

No, but that was never the intent - or the label would reflect that; the fact that the USA produces knock-off products is an excellent example of why the labelling exists with the intent to protect the name. "Swiss Cheese" springs to mind -- what's Swiss Cheese? It's certainly not swiss. Or what about "parmesan cheese"? Same deal. Or Champagne. Or polish sausages.

Fact is we cherish our culture and heritage, even though it has changed slightly over time.

On March 01, 2007 at 04:52 PM, Michael Chu said...
Anonymous wrote:
No, but that was never the intent - or the label would reflect that; the fact that the USA produces knock-off products is an excellent example of why the labelling exists with the intent to protect the name. "Swiss Cheese" springs to mind -- what's Swiss Cheese? It's certainly not swiss. Or what about "parmesan cheese"? Same deal. Or Champagne. Or polish sausages.

Fact is we cherish our culture and heritage, even though it has changed slightly over time.

Good point. I am still a bit irked by the phrases "Designation of Quality" or "Guarantees of Excellence" when it really means "Traditionally Made" or "Made in the Parma". Granted the likelihood that a traditionally made product is better than a knockoff is high, making something traditionally does not guarantee quality or excellence. Nor does it mean a product made elsewhere is not as good. If cheddar cheese were to apply for a designation, then would it mean that the excellent cheddars made outside of Cheddar in Somerset would automatically be lower quality? I agree with the necessity of labeling items as Authentic, but not when it uses words like Quality and Excellence (subjective terms whereas authenticity is more or less objective).

On March 04, 2007 at 05:44 PM, Sasman (guest) said...
Subject: EU Rules, EU Problems
I'm an American engineer and secondary math/science/computing teacher living in Germany (teaching Americans). My whole take on this, as on so many things EU, is that there's a pronounced element of snobbery involved, more than any real, empirical enhancement. Ultimately, the EU are protecting their tax-base. Such labelling demands higher prices from consumers here and everywhere, while things lacking the labelling, but nonetheless produced in Europe already have a certain mystique.

The EU is systematically harming all the member nations and their citizens. If the young United States had conducted themselves this way, America would have many small "countries" and at most a loose treaty federation today. The taxes and environmental rules here are so cumbersome as to discourage lots of otherwise entreprenurial folks from EVEN WORKING--REALLY! The only groups that are becoming weathlier are non-european emigrants who receive pay and welfare compensations in excess of their uses. In 10-20 years I predict that this new class will be The Ruling class (strictly by virtue of money and the influence it brings). Would anyone care to guess what religion at least 90% of these emigrants have in common--if you guessed Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Mormon, Buddhist, Shinto or Scientologist--you're wrong. Here's a hint, they mostly come here from our southeast...

On April 08, 2007 at 05:22 AM, Judith in Umbria (guest) said...
Subject: European designated quality labels
Whoa! How about a bit of political judgment with your food?

I mostly know about Italian products, since that's where I live and cook. Italians are very picky indeed about their food, and snobbery really doesn't come into it here. Parmigiano Reggiano is one great example. The milk comes from cows that have eaten exclusively the natural growth of that area. It tastes different from similar cheeses made elsewhere. It is checked and rechecked consistently for quality until it is sold at whatever age you are buying, there being a minimum but no maximum-- although paying for something more than 5 years would be burdensome. Parmigiano Reggiano is a grana and there are others. Italians know what to expect from the others, depending on where it is made. Grana Padana, for example. There is even a superb grana bufala, made from buffalo milk. Can you use a different grana in a recipe calling for parmesan? Of course you can! Can you buy a bad grana? I suppose so, but all I have used have been at least tasty, versus most of the fake parmesan made elsewhere using milk from tanker trucks of no specific origin in other countries.
When I buy prosciutto, I say which one I want. They ARE different. The pigs eat different things, the curing varies, the age varies.
When I buy olive oil I pick the one right for what I am cooking.
It is not snobbery. Food is expensive here and people have reason for wanting to know exactly what they are buying. All tastes are accounted for. We have lots of choices and we have attitude. If the EU tries to mess with important things, there's an uprising. They tried to pass a law requiring pasteurizing of all cheese milks and they could not, because no one wants to live in that world.
Would you like to pay Barolo prices for a fake made in Chianti? Me either. I am pleased that Europe is keeping food supply from going down the generic road. That's available, too, but we can still rely on the origin labels and it is a good thing.

On January 15, 2008 at 09:23 PM, tahrey (guest) said...
Subject: interesting, but...
I wonder how widespread these actually are...

I feel I've leaned something useful about food labelling and things to look for, here, but having grown up in the EU area all my life (if the UK counts, which ostensibly it does, and I've made enough trips over the channel/bought enough foreign produce) - I don't think I've ever seen a single one of these four on any item I've ever bought. Even on domestic organic items.

Probably open my fridge now and suddenly notice two or three instances of one of these and go "d'oh!", but they are pretty distinct and eye catching, you'd think they'd stand out & have caught my eye alongside the usual 'recyclable', 'recycled packaging', 'no animal tests', 'uk farmers association' (red tractor), etc logos, & all the sundry ones that producers and retailers themselves add to e.g. indicate the strength of a cheese...

On July 18, 2008 at 02:13 PM, an anonymous reader said...
I'm also a north-american engineer type, and I've been living in France for about four years. I've also never seen any of these labels - I think this is because there is an equivalent expression and label in each member country. These labels must be used for export purposes.

Anyway, as much as I appreciate experiencing local foods, I was also initially dumbfounded by the pan-European belief in an equivalence between regional production and quality. You could call it snobbery if you like. But what first strikes us as bizarre is really just the weight of history and the total integration of food into culture. Until quite recently, people ate things that came from their local region, and prepared them in ways that had been adapted over very long periods of time to the local climate, vegetation, etc. The relationship with food was more like the relationship with family or language or one's own origins. Food is not necessarily perceived as an interchangeable consumer good with objectively quantifiable 'quality', even if rationalized large-scale production has in large part made it so. Many people in Europe are stuck between two irreconcilable worlds: a symbolic one which idealizes traditional, local culture, and a globalized, industrialized economic reality that is beyond everyday comprehension.

So I can understand that there are a lot of people who care a lot about what they eat, who judge the fitness of a product by its region of production and the use of traditional methods. But I also see quite well that this mentality is being exploited by marketing strategies. The production and distribution of foods here seems to mostly be a massive, impersonal industry. What counts for those who are selling these products is the 'aura' of authenticity. I can easily go to the supermarket and buy a mediocre or even bad cheese that qualifies for a 'quality' label, but I can also go to a market and buy really good cheese made by some local farmer who does not qualify for the label. When I go to the open-air market and buy vegetables in a traditional setting, people will surely tell me that they are of higher quality or better and so on, though often if I look behind the stands I can see from the cardboard shipping cartons that they are the same vegetables I could buy in the supermarket.

I recently shared some good Oregon wine with some friends here, who never denied that it was good stuff... the consensus was in fact that it was 'too good', probably the result of having rationally studied the production process and 'perfected' it. In general, people aren't after the most perfect taste etc. but something they can identify and place in the classification system they grew up with. Whether they are conscious of this is another question.

On October 02, 2010 at 07:22 AM, an anonymous reader said...
Noone in Europe uses these labels, but that doesn't mean the naming of "protected" products isn't enforced.
Try selling Parma hams that aren't produced in the Parma region and you're in for a serious legal battle, product confiscation, and fines.

I doubt most food producers and packagers even know the labels exist that they're entitled to use (no doubt after paying a hefty "license fee"), or else they're only used for the export market as inside the EU "counterfeit" (bearing the name without meeting the requirements) items are banned anyway.

And thus we get the real reasons for these labels and regulations: marketing and market protection.
At the same time they protect EU manufacturers from cheaper competing products from elsewhere as well as providing a medium through which to represent those products to export markets as being "exclusive" and of superior quality.

Meanwhile the EU consumer suffers through lack of choice at the store and higher prices.

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