How does European law protect food names?

Where food is made in a traditional way or made in a particular region European law enables certain food names to be registered. There are three ways in which European law classifies such foods for registration purposes. These are “protected designation of origin”, “protected geographic indication” and “traditional speciality guaranteed”.

The purpose of the law in this area is to encourage diverse agricultural protection and to protect names from imitation and misuse so as to help consumers by providing them with information about the specific character of an agricultural product or foodstuff. 

Once a name has been registered that name can only be used to identify foodstuffs or agricultural products which correspond to the product specification that has been registered for the foodstuff or agricultural product in question.

What foods can be registered?

Protected designation of origin

The term “protected designation of origin” is used where agricultural products and foodstuffs are produced, processed and prepared in a particular region or specific place, or in a particular country and where the quality or characteristics of that food or agricultural product are essentially or exclusively due to a particular geographical environment in which it is produced, processed and prepared. 

In the case of protected designation of origin, as a general rule, all the production, processing and preparation is required to take place in the geographical area concerned. There is an exception to this general rule, however, in relation to raw materials coming from a larger and limited area.  

There are certain restrictions for the registration of names. For example, generic names may not be registered. 

Products that have been registered as protected designation of origin include Yorkshire forced rhubarb, Staffordshire cheese and Roquefort cheese.

Protected geographic indication

The term “protected geographic indication” is used where agricultural products and foodstuffs are closely linked to a particular region or specific place, or a particular country and where the foodstuff or agricultural product possesses a specific quality, reputation or other characteristics attributable to the place in which it is produced, processed or prepared. 

Again, there are certain restrictions for the registration of names. For example, generic names may not be registered. 

Products that have been registered as protected geographic indication include Cornish sardines, traditional Grimsby smoked fish and Melton Mowbray pork pies.

Traditional speciality guaranteed

The term “traditional speciality guaranteed” replaced the term “certificate of specific character”. “Traditional speciality guaranteed” means a traditional agricultural product or food stuff recognised for its specific character.  The characteristics may relate to the product’s intrinsic features or to the product’s production method or to specific conditions connected with its production.  

In order to appear in the register an agricultural product or foodstuff must either be produced using traditional raw materials or be characterised by a traditional composition or a mode of production and/or processing reflecting a traditional type of production and/or processing. 

Products that have been registered as traditional speciality guaranteed include traditional farm fresh turkey, mozzarella and pizzas napoletana.

How is a food name or type of food registered?

The European Commission keeps a register of agricultural products and foodstuffs which have been registered as “protected designation of origin”, “protected geographic indication” and “traditional specialities guaranteed”. 

Ordinarily applications for registration are only available to groups of producers and/or processors working with the same agricultural products or foodstuff.  

Applications for registration should be sent to the authority in the Member State who has been authorised to deal with such applications. In England and Wales applications should be sent to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Applications are required to contain certain information, including a product specification for the product to which the application relates. 

The Member State will then scrutinise the application and if the Member State is satisfied that the application meets the conditions for registration they will then refer the matter to the European Commission. 

The European Commission will then scrutinise the application to check that it is justified and meets the conditions for registration. The European Commission has six months to make as decision as to whether it considers registration to be appropriate and to inform the Member State of its decision. 

Where the European Commission considers that the conditions have been met it will publish its decision in the Official Journal of the European Union. Member States and third countries then have six months in which to make any objections to the registration. If no objections are made, the agricultural product or foodstuff will be registered. 

Applications can be made in relation to products from outside of the European Community. In such circumstances the application should be made direct to the European Commission. 

Member States are required to monitor products which have been registered to ensure that they comply with the product specification. If a product specification is not complied with the European Commission has the power to cancel the registration.