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How is the denomination of origin protected in Europe?

Every region and every geographical area has its specific foods and recipes. These make each part of the world so unique. Not too long ago, in 1992, the European Union made  the decision to enhance the value of these local and regional specialities by initiating a food quality scheme, an initiative that encompasses a range of foods and foodstuff. Prior, very few specific products, such as some cheeses and wines, had been protected. 

Within the quality scheme initiative, three different labels were introduced to clearly indicate  to the consumer when a product is historically linked to a specific area, or when unique traditional techniques are used. Most countries within the European Union have already certified some products or are in the process of application. You can see the products of each country in the DOOR-database of the European Union. Maybe you have you spotted them already in your own region, doing your grocery shopping? You can recognize these products  by their yellow-red or yellow-blue coloured labels. They are the same for each of the country (only the words change) and they look as follows:

The European Union's denomination of origin seals

P.D.O. stands for protected designation of origin, foods wearing this labels have proven the strongest connection to the area where they are produced. It guarantees that each step (production, processing, preparation) must have taken place in the defined town, region or state.  The product must have been clearly shaped by the specific conditions of this place and developed it to what it is known for – location and the food characteristics must show a clear connection. 

Do you know the Styrian scarlet runner bean (Steirische Käferbohne)? 

A vibrant pink or purple, dark-spotted and 2,5cm (!) long bean which gives an impressive image and is a main ingredient in the Styrian cuisine, often combined with Styrian pumpkin seed oil (PGI). Seed production, cultivating, and processing of this bean must take place in the designated area of Eastern Austria, where the mineral-rich limey clays, early humid spring and rainy summer offer the perfect conditions for this cold-resistant bean to flourish. For almost two centuries local farmers have developed and optimized varieties and local cultivation techniques such as gardens with complicated climbing-aids or intercropping with maize. In the latter option, the maize serves as climbing-aid for the bean, while the bean plant supplies valuable Nitrogen to the maize and soil. Both plants benefit, as does the farmer: The two crops ripen at the same time and can be harvested with a combine harvester in one process. Today, the bright red flowers are a fixed part of the Styrian landscape. And, the purple beans have advanced from a basic country dish to a healthy, fiber- and protein-rich ingredient used  for modern cooking. The styrian scarlet runner bean has been registered as a PGI in 2016. 

A cup filled with Styrian Scarlet Beans

P.G.I. stands for protected geographical indication and proves a direct connection between the product’s quality or characteristics and the respective geographical area. At least one of the stages (production, processing or preparation) must  take place in the indicated region. However, the primary material can be sourced from outside. As in P.D.O., the region is often mentioned in the protected product name, however this isn’t a necessary requirement.

Did you know the Spreewald gherkins (Spreewälder Gurken)? 

The Spreewald (Spreeforest, UNESCO world heritage) is an idyllic forest swamp area in Eastern Germany shaped by the river Spree with its natural vast ramification. The many river branches have been extended by farmers to over 200 small canals forming a traditional irrigation system. These conditions combined with the moist soils, rich in humus, are conducive and favorable to cucumber growing in that area – the crop that has been the region’s most important for centuries. Generations ago, the  cucumbers were   transported in canoes through the canals after harvest and then traded within and outside of the country. To be able to enjoy the vegetable in season and in the winter months,  the local population came up with recipes for vinegar preservation and developed the famous recipes for Spreewald gherkins over time. Finely tuned processing and ingredients, herbs and spices, its special taste and crunchiness made the Spreewald gherkin outstanding and they were registered as a product with protected geographical indication in 1999. Processing must  take place in the Spreewald region in order to obtain this classification, and 70 percent of all cucumbers must stem from here. 

A jar with Spreewald cucumbers

T.S.G. stands for traditional specialities guaranteed and aims to protect food and recipes with a proven specific character, special quality and tradition from copying, without linking to a region. Only products created  in the traditional manner, recipes that haven’t changed for at least 30 years, are allowed to boast the registered name.  

Did you know Hushållsost? 

Swedish Hushållsost (ost = cheese, “household cheese”) is the result of long, cold winters and the need for Swedish farmers to make their own cheese with simple household tools, and to  stock up for the months when cow milk was less available. Over centuries these small, simple cheeses were formed in farm houses, and from the end of the 19th century the name Hushållsost appeared. Its taste is mild and creamy, with little aftertaste. However, it is excellent for storing, even if the cheese mould is already cut open, and after the first two months of minimum ripening the taste will gradually evolve. Since 2004 Hushållsost is registered as guaranteed traditional speciality , but only if the production process follows the official traditional recipe can it wear the label. 

A wedge of Swedish Hushållsost cheese

Which advantages do these labels bring? 

The strict control and auditing network assures that labeled products really comply with the rules, recipes and regulations defined for each product. As a consumer you can be confident that you are buying a high-quality product with a unique story  and characteristics . But, these labels do not only have an impact on the consumer side – I believe there are many more advantages. As the list of registered PDO, PGI, TSG products grows, I believe that these labels can contribute to sustainable development.

Fostering the production and thus the producers of these registered foods means supporting mostly small businesses and farms. You will mainly find small local farmers and manufacturers that see new incentives to continue working in their traditional way and keep old knowledge and practices alive. These labels open better markets to the producers and mean an alternative to mass-production of modern, standardized foods. For consumers, these products often offer a way to support also small businesses instead of the big food companies and to add more variety to our more and more standardized diet. The that is brought to them by the EU-Food-Quality scheme can help recover agrobiodiversity.  

This is not only vital for resilient agro-ecosystems but also rural development of the regions as a whole: With regional specialities and traditions, tourism around this heritage can evolve and the attractiveness of rural areas raised.

Concrete examples of farmers already using these labels: 

  • Cheese producer Sebastien, PDO Ossau-Iraty sheep cheese, France 
  • Cow farmer Ghislain, traditional Comté, France 
  • Farmer Carlos, PDO saffron La Mancha, Spain   

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