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Mr. Weir: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, which I was going to come to later. Many European areas have managed to get a good industry going with local foods, and to tie that into their tourism industry. We need to do that in Scotland to a much greater extent.
Registration protects a product from cheap imitations and provides an excellent marketing opportunity both for products aimed at new markets and for tourism, as I have mentioned. Would champagne be so successful if it was just another fizzy wine? Registration protects the quality of the product and thus its respectability and the market for it. In an age of mass production, people who seek to create quality products must more and more seek niche markets to sell their wares. Scotland has a worldwide reputation for quality and for its environment, and that reputation means a lot.
Furthermore, registration means that inferior products produced elsewhere cannot be passed off as local products, as has happened in the past to the smokie industry among others. Indeed, when Delia Smith recently discovered the Arbroath smokie, there was a rush, albeit short-lived, on the productbut many people who were buying "Arbroath smokies" were probably buying fish that had never smelled the fresh air of Arbroath harbour.
Many rural and remote areas are suffering badly from the downturn in traditional industries. Sadly, Arbroath's once great fishing industry is almost a distant memoryalthough as I said earlier, there is currently an upturn, but that may turn out to be an Indian summer. Proposals have been submitted to turn part of the Arbroath harbour area into a tourist attractionagain, smokies could form part of that. Perhaps there will be no Smokieworld, but we have hope for the future.
Welcome as those developments are, they do not compensate for the loss of fishing jobs in the past few decades. Fish processing continues in a fairly substantial way, although with small-scale producers in Arbroath, and has a future if fish stocks are maintained. There was a welcome increase in them this year as a result of the quotas negotiated by the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) in Brussels. However, storm clouds appear to be gathering on the horizon again. The fish-processing industry sometimes lives on the edge, as was recently demonstrated by the closures in north-east Scotland.
To survive, traditional industries must protect the things that make them unique; the Arbroath smokie is an example, as is the Forfar bridie, which my hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart) mentioned. To do so, however, they must seek the protection of their identity, which would allow them to develop a niche market and sell a reliable quality product. We are told that food producers must seek that quality niche market, and many are striving to do so.
However, to secure protection for the future they must receive European registration. It is imperative that the Government give all necessary assistance to such applications, especially to small-scale producers, who may be wiped out if they have been successful in establishing a market only for it to be swamped by mass producers cashing in.
The registration system has been taken up with gusto across continental Europe, as is shown by the figures. I ask the Minister to do the same here and to offer help in achieving registration to all small-scale producers in Scotland, Wales and the rest of the UK. Many fine and unique products are produced in Scotland, and even in other parts of the UK; I confess to being a great fan of blue Stilton cheese.
The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael): It is a great pleasure to respond to the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir), and I congratulate him on securing the debate, which gives us the opportunity to hear about the joys of Arbroath smokies. The first thing that I did when I realised that I would be responding to the debate was to test the availability of Arbroath smokies in London. As the test proved positive, I tasted the product for myself this afternoon. I can therefore join him in recommending it to the hon. Members who have flooded into the Chamber to hear this important debate.
I want to get one or two statistical matters straight. The hon. Gentleman referred to the number of successful registrations in Scotland. There are sevenOrkney beef, Orkney lamb, Scottish beef, Scottish lamb, Shetland lamb, Bonchester cheese and Teviotdale cheese. That list excludes those that are going through the process, such as the Arbroath smokie. On the comparison with other countries, although the hon. Gentleman is correct that the United Kingdom has some 31 successful registrations, France has 127 and Italy has 117, we are at the halfway point in the table, and many countries have not taken as much advantage of registration as has the UK.
What is interesting, apart from the fact that the United Kingdom is halfway up the tableand may move further if the information that I have been given today is correctis the way in which registration is being used. Eleven products are from the south-west of England. That fits in well with the fact that the promotion of regional foods in the south-west, "Taste of the West", is particularly effective. It has succeeded in giving a profile
Although there is growing interest in regional and local food, there is little public knowledge about the EU scheme for protecting food names, and I welcome the opportunity to discuss it and to say a little about what we have been doing. The idea of registering a traditional regional food or drink remains something of an alien concept in the UK, and we need to ask why that is. Other member statesit is no accident that France and Italy are at the head of the list of registrationshave a long tradition of recognising the importance of regional food and drink in encouraging a vibrant rural economy. The French have a well-established system for registering protected food names, which is familiar to us from their cheeses and winesappellation contrôlée. That explains why so many French products now benefit from the EU scheme that came into force in 1993, with the first products being registered in 1996.
Despite our position somewhere behind the starting line when the scheme was introduced, we are beginning to catch up. The first products registered under the scheme include Scottish beef, Scottish lamb and Orkney lamb and, moving south of the border, Newcastle brown and Stilton cheese. Both the latter have adherents in the House. They are all excellent products, which deserve protection. The 31 United Kingdom products that have been registered place us seventh in the EU league table.
In addition, there is the designation known as the "certificate of specific character". Such a product has to be produced on the basis of a traditional recipe. It has been little used so far, even in France. However, traditional farm-produced turkeys in the United Kingdom can make use of it. The market is growing because consumers appreciate the distinctive flavour that derives from the method of production and preparation. That is another commendable step forward.
Much more needs to be done. As we have heard, many other products are equally worth protecting. I hope that, in future, hon. Members from different regions of England as well as from Scotland and Wales will compete to tell the House, the country and the world about the excellence of their local products.
Why should we protect such products? What are we doing to encourage more registrations? It is not enough to register food names for the sake of it or for sentimental reasons. Consumers are showing an increasing interest in regional and traditional foods. As well as price, quality and accessibility, consumers look for authenticity and traceability. Products that fulfil those needs can therefore be marketed at a premium, thus benefiting farmers and secondary producers.
Time and again, we have said that it is important to find ways of getting the price that consumers are willing to pay back to primary producers and the communities from which the products originate. Once a protected food name is registered, consumers can be assured that it is authentic because registered products must be fully certified as conforming to a set specification by independent inspection bodies.
It is becoming easier for consumers to identify registered products thanks to the distinctive community logos that producers can use when labelling their products. Several UK products are using the logos and we are keen to encourage a greater take-up.
Let us consider ways in which to encourage more awareness of the scheme, which is voluntary and designed to promote new applications. In 1999, the then Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food launched a campaign to raise the profile of our regional food heritage. It was aimed at food producers, retailers and consumers and tried to raise awareness of the EU scheme and highlight UK products that had already been protected or might be eligible for protection.
The campaign involved a major exhibition at the royal show and a series of regional seminars in England and Wales. They prompted a great deal of interest from producers and resulted in several new applications, some of which are with European Commission for consideration.
There is more to do and I am pleased that Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs officials are working closely with colleagues in the devolved Administrations to attract more applications. As I said earlier, no Welsh applications have yet been approved but we are confident that that will happen. The Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly have been working, through officials' joint activity, to use the European scheme. That is another example of the co-operation necessary to make devolution a success.
Close co-operation is also vital once an application has been submitted to us. That was much in evidence when we dealt with the Arbroath smokie application, and ensured that we were able to forward it to the Commission in Brussels without delay.
I want to say a little about the timetable to which the hon. Gentleman referred. Criticisms have been made of the scheme, which has been portrayed as slow and bureaucratic. However, let us consider our goal. The delay is partly due to the built-in timetable in EU legislation. The timetable is designed to protect the scheme's integrity and the long-term value of designation to consumers and producers. It is not simply a quick marketing ploy, but something that will add value in the long term to the product that he wants promoted on behalf of firms in his constituency.
The timetable also includes an opportunity for producers elsewhere in the EU to object to applications and enables our producers to object to a possible unfair designation from some country elsewhere in Europe. It is, therefore, right that the process should have a degree of time for thought and for objection to ensure that the integrity is protected, and that once a product is designated, it means something.
We try to make the process as painless as possible by guiding applicants through the process, advising them on completing their applications, and doing all that we can to ensure that there is no undue delay once an application is sent to the commission. The hon. Gentleman referred to costs, and was kind enough to inform us of the amount that it costs the Government to assist with the process. I should point out that no fee is charged to applicants. We are supporting this because it is good for business in the UK, and we are seeking to encourage small businesses as well as larger ones to take advantage of this facility.
The commission on the future of farming and food, led by Sir Donald Curry, recently recognised that one of the greatest opportunities for food producers to add value and retain a bigger slice of the retail price was to build on the public's increasing enthusiasm for local food or food with a clear regional provenance. The Curry report recommended that industry bodies, with the help of Food from Britain and the regional food groups, should do more to ensure that English producers take part in the protected food name schemethe same would apply to Scottish and Welsh producers. We accept this recommendation, and DEFRA officials have been making information about the scheme available to the regional food groups and will work closely with them in the same way that they work closely with their colleagues in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Finally, it is worth noting that the scheme may not be suitable for all our regional food and drink products, either because those products do not meet the criteria for eligibility or because the producers themselves do not wish to register the products.
I shall close by saying something about our efforts to encourage regional food production more generally and to help producers find outlets for their products. One of the pleasures of this job is spending time in the regions of England, and eating regional and locally grown products with people whom I meet and entertain has brought home to me how the quality and presentation of food in the United Kingdom has improved in recent years.
We have made provision under the England rural development programme for grants-related activities such as the establishment of farmers' markets, the development of regional or local branding of foodstuffs, the marketing of organic products, and the formation of collaborative groups to market quality products. All of these are important. The Countryside Agency's "Eat the View" campaign seeks to achieve more favourable market conditions for local products that support sustainable land management. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is a link between food and attracting tourists to an area. That is a good connection that we should make the most of.
Food from Britain, another of the bodies to which we grant aid, has been encouraging supermarkets to stock local produce, with some success. It also supports a network of regional food groups which provide trade development services to regional and speciality food producers.
At a more strategic level, it is one of the benefits of the new Department that it brings more closely together the staff dealing with a wide range of food, environmental and sustainability issues. This is very much in our minds as we draw up our response to the Curry report's recommendations relating to regional and local food, with the aim of developing a strategic approach to the promotion of regional foods and greater co-ordination between bodies with an interest in this work.
At the end of the day, there are models that work, and there is an opportunity for registration in this community scheme. It is by bringing those together and ensuring that people understand what is being done that we can help the British food industry not only to succeed for itself but to help the work of the British tourist industry and other industries at national, regional and local level. The encouragement by the Prince of Wales to supermarkets to consider regional and local products is also beneficial.
There is also encouragement for us to look across boundaries so that we appreciate products from elsewhere. Those of us from Wales, for example, might appreciate the products of Scotland and the regions of England, and so on. We have a great deal to gain from each other if we value each other's products and encourage them to