How Brexit brought food and drink brands under threat

Brexit could have threatened British food and drink icons, but manufacturers and government are protecting the sector at home and abroad

For those of us who enjoy a hearty summer picnic, Brexit threatened to bring rain clouds to the party, with fears over vital geographical indication (GI) protection for some of our most treasured staples. 

GIs were created as part of a 1992 EU scheme. They designate products that originate from a specific area and possess certain qualities, characteristics or reputation due to their place of origin. In the UK, this covered iconic names like Melton Mowbray Pork Pies, Stilton cheese, and that cheeky Scotch Whisky hidden in a hip flask. 

This meant that Blue Stilton could only be produced within the counties of Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire and must take the form of a “blue veined moulded cheese made in cylindrical form from full cream cow’s milk”. Likewise, a Cornish pasty must be made locally, have a “D” shape and contain a certain proportion of potato and meat.

There is now a real opportunity for the less blockbuster UK food brands to register their own geographical indications under the new dedicated UK scheme

The scheme, which UK and other European manufacturers had to apply for before being registered, meant that no other EU producer could make a pasty and call it Cornish or describe their sparkling alcoholic drink as Champagne if it wasn’t made in the French region. It also prohibited, say, an Argentinian meat firm making a Melton Mowbray pork pie and selling into the UK.

GIs were incorporated into EU trade agreements preventing manufacturers in Japan, for example, from making and selling the protected products in their domestic and export markets.

As of November 2019, there were 1,457 registered EU GIs, of which 73 were UK registrations. After Brexit there were concerns that the law would no longer apply to UK brands, with no legal provision for domestic GIs under UK law. This led to scare stories of fake products flying onto UK supermarket shelves, lowering the quality of our picnics and tea times and hitting manufacturers’ revenue and reputation.

Fortunately, the UK/EU trade deal agreed that UK-registered GIs would continue to be protected under the EU scheme. GIs with EU origin were also granted protection under a new UK GI scheme. This protects GIs sold in Great Britain but does not apply to Northern Ireland, which will continue to use the EU system. UK brands wanting GI registration post-Brexit must now apply to both the UK scheme and the EU if they want protection there.

Food tourism

According to the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association, the GIs of both Stilton and the iconic pies help bring £100m of food tourism cash into Leicestershire every year.

“People come on Pork Pie pilgrimages,” says chairman Matthew O’Callaghan. “The GIs are important for local jobs and investment, but Brexit brought uncertainty.”

O’Callaghan contacted the government after the EU referendum and was told that pork pie producers’ best option would be to take out certification marks, another form of intellectual property protection.

“We felt it was too expensive though to do this in each country and then legally police it ourselves,” he says.

The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), representing manufacturers contributing over £5.5bn to the UK economy, does have that power. It decided to proactively seek extra GI protection in countries around the world, such as Laos. It’s currently seeking certification marks in the US and Hong Kong.

People come on Pork Pie pilgrimages. The GIs are important for local jobs and investment, but Brexit brought uncertainty

“We didn’t really see Brexit as a serious threat. GIs protect not just producers but also consumers, so if the EU took away Scotch Whisky protection it would have been an own goal,” explains Lindesay Low, deputy director of legal affairs at the SWA.

The new UK scheme is important because historically most GI litigation has focused on domestic manufacturers and supermarkets faking brands, says Jeremy Dickerson, partner at law firm Burges Salmon.

“There is now a real opportunity for the less blockbuster UK food brands to register their own GIs under the new dedicated UK scheme,” he says. “A Kent cider maker, for example, may not have registered under the EU scheme as their main market is the UK. Now they have a better regime and should get protected.”

UK GIs in existing EU bilateral deals were also rolled over in last year’s agreement. “There is no country where we were protected pre-Brexit that we’ve now lost,” states Low. “It is vital that GIs continue to be incorporated in new UK Free Trade Agreements (FTAs). We are currently protected in countries such as New Zealand but there are a lot of UK products which are not.”

The government seems to be listening. In the UK-Japan FTA signed last October it increased the number of UK GIs from seven in the EU-Japan deal to potentially more than 70, including English sparkling wine. And in the UK-Australia FTA in June it was stated that the UK will be able to put forward GIs for potential protection.

David Henig, director of the UK Trade Policy Project at the European Centre for International Political Economy, says this is a huge change. “Prior to Brexit the government didn’t see GIs as a priority,” he says. “It was seen as something Europeans worried about, not us.”

Indeed, O’Callaghan says that in the EU-Canada trade deal of 2016 the UK offered no preferred GI products to the EU for potential protection. “GIs were never automatically put in a trade deal. Each country had to provide a list for consideration. We just didn’t choose to put any up,” he explains. “There seems to be a recognition now that our products should be included in trade deals. We have certainly lobbied that they should be.”

A tough recipe

Despite the best intentions, negotiating GIs in trade agreements can be a challenge. For example, it can be tough to agree product definitions or avoid clashes with governments seeking to protect their domestic manufacturers. There must also be clear enforcement procedures enshrined in the documents.

UK manufacturers are helping in the process. “We put a lot of effort into briefing the government,” says Low. For example, the SWA would like to see a whisky definition in its important markets requiring that it be made from grain and aged in wooden barrels; it sees FTAs as a key tool to achieve this goal. 

“There are always going to be fake goods out there, but GIs can keep them to a level where customers can be guaranteed authenticity,” he says, adding that GIs can also be a great ambassador for often much-maligned British food, opening doors to new markets. 

Melton Mowbray Pork Pies are not exported to any country apart from Ireland, but O’Callaghan certainly sees the potential. “Having a GI abroad leaves the market open in case we want to export and removes any potential competitors,” he explains. “I can see them going down a bomb in pork-loving China.”

There could also one day be demand internationally for UK regional fare, such as Liverpool scouse (a form of stew) or Birmingham Balti.

O’Callaghan is keen to see meals like these incorporated in the UK GI scheme.

“It would help local cafes and boost regional food reputations,” he says. “It’s all about customers getting the genuine article.”

Balti at a picnic, or perhaps a Christmas fair? Whatever the occasion, the status of British food looks healthy post-Brexit.