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18 Jun 2002 : Column 247

18 Jun 2002 : Column 249

Regional Foods Registration

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Jim Murphy.]

10 pm

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus): It will come as no surprise to the Minister that the debate has been prompted by the situation of the Arbroath smokie.

The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael): I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will be on level communication this evening. I am aware of his intention of raising the matter of the Arbroath smokie, and I sampled that delicacy this afternoon in order to be properly prepared for the debate.

Mr. Weir: I am delighted to hear that the Minister has sampled that delicacy. I brought down with me a pair of Arbroath smokies bought from E and O Fish in Arbroath on Sunday afternoon, so I could have presented them to him had he not done that. My Chief Whip tells me that that might constitute a bribe, but he says that he will come round and help me finish them off. We shall see.

As I am sure the Minister and all other hon. Members are aware, the Arbroath smokie is a smoked haddock, a delicacy that has been produced in my home town for centuries. Indeed, it is believed to have been invented by the monks at Arbroath abbey, even before the abbey hosted the signing of the first declaration of Scottish independence.

The Minister also knows that the fishing industry, and with it the fish processing industry, have been going through difficult times in recent years, owing to the scarcity of fish in general and haddock in particular. That has hit the Arbroath smokie industry particularly hard. For a time last year, the main producer of Arbroath smokies ceased production. It is now reported that there has been a substantial increase in the haddock catch with the new quotas, and the haddock catch landed at Arbroath has risen from 40 to 300 boxes a week. That is the first time that that has happened in many a long year, and it is a good sign.

Now is the perfect time for the industry to expand and seek new markets—but if it is to do so, the protection by registration of the name is essential. The Minister will know that most of the producers in the town are small-scale family businesses that rely for their business on the worldwide reputation of the smokie. That has been under threat in recent years, as fish processors in other parts of the UK have tried to use the name of the Arbroath smokie to sell their own much inferior products.

Such a situation can be disastrous for any product that relies on its name and reputation. If the market gets contaminated by inferior products, the name and reputation can be irreparably damaged. Because of that, my local authority, Angus council, is spearheading a campaign to guarantee and protect the good name of the Arbroath smokie, by joining forces with fish processors in the town to apply for the Arbroath Smokie name to be registered under the European protected geographical indications scheme.

That is rather a mouthful, but as the Minister knows, it is one of three designations that can be sought under European legislation, the others being the protection of

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designated origin, whereby the product must by produced, processed and prepared in a specified geographical area, and the certificate of specific character, where the name must be specific in itself or express the specific character of the foodstuff.

Under the protection of geographical indications scheme, the product must be produced, processed or prepared in the geographical area, which is obviously the case with a smoked fish delicacy such as the Arbroath smokie. Perhaps the most famous example of a food with such a designation is Parma ham. It is a scandal that such an inferior product has the designation, while the great Arbroath smokie has not yet achieved it. The producers of Parma ham jealously guard its name. The pig producers must adhere to strict protocols and standards, and the ham must be prepared and sliced in or around Parma. Indeed, the producers have taken large supermarket chains and others to court to try to ensure the quality and reputation of their ham.

However, the problem with the registration process is that it is long, cumbersome and expensive. A protection of geographical indications—PGI—designation involves a number of stages, as the Minister will no doubt be aware, and must include information about the method of production, including the origin, nature and characteristics of the raw material. In the case of a traditional delicacy such as the Arbroath smokie, making the application is an arduous task. Angus council engaged Bob Spink, local smokie expert and former director of Arbroath fish processing company R. R. Spink and Sons, to draft the application. Indeed, anyone who knows Arbroath will know that the name of Spink is synonymous with fishing.

After the application has been drafted, it must pass through three stages. It must go to the Environment and Rural Development Department of the Scottish Executive, the Minister's own Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and then the European Commission. That is a lengthy process; I understand that it can take up to 18 months. Once the application reaches the European Commission, I understand that it takes six months to consider it before issuing its decision. If the applicant is successful, as I am sure the Arbroath smokie application will be, details of the product are published in the Official Journal of the European Commission.

However, there is then a further period of six months to allow other members of the European Union and EU producers to express objections. If no objections are received, I understand that the product will then become registered and details will once again be published in the Official Journal. If objections are received, however, there can be a further three-month period to allow the EU states involved to have bilateral discussions to solve the problem. It would be an interesting seminar or summit at which European nations met to discuss the Arbroath smokie. I am sure that it will not come to that, but if it does, and the issue remains unresolved, the final decision will be taken by the European Union regulatory committee.

I have described the process in some detail to illustrate the fact that it can be expensive. The costs of drafting, submitting and pursuing an application and of the required expertise would be beyond the means of most small-scale producers. Indeed, I asked the Minister's Department a parliamentary question about the average cost to it of such an application. The answer referred to some £15,000 in staff costs alone. That is how much it will cost that

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Department, let alone the applicants themselves. No small amount is involved, and therein lies the problem with the process: it is almost impossible for a small-scale producer to afford the cost of registering a product.

In the case of the Arbroath smokie, as I said, most producers are small scale and would be unable to meet the cost on their own. They can proceed only because of the support of Angus council. That should not be the case; we should be able to register our traditional products much more easily. Therefore, my first question to the Minister is this: will he investigate whether it would be possible to reduce the cost of making such applications, and whether the Government could consider helping to fund them to ensure that more go forward?

Given the complexity and costs of the process, it is perhaps hardly surprising that producers in Scotland—and, indeed, the whole of the UK—are far behind in registering products. Again, I raised the matter in a written question to the Minister's Department. I was told that to date, only five products from Scotland and 31 from the UK as a whole had been registered. As well as the Arbroath smokie, I understand that only two other Scottish products are currently going through the process: Aberdeen Angus beef, which again comes from my constituency and neighbouring ones—

Alun Michael: As anybody reading the record might be misled, I should say that I understand that seven applications have been approved from Scotland out of the 31 applications made from the UK as a whole. As a Welshman, I was rather disappointed to see that there were no Welsh applications, although I believe that Welsh beef and lamb—both excellent products—are on the cards.

Mr. Weir: I thank the Minister for that intervention. I had originally written that there were seven approved applications, as that was my understanding, but the parliamentary answer that I received said that there had been five.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside): As my hon. Friend is going to Wales, may I also take him across the constituency boundary to the part of Angus that I represent? As a son of Angus, he will no doubt be aware of the excellent Forfar bridie, which in my opinion is the finest meat-based product—I suppose the English would call it a pasty—in the whole United Kingdom. Beyond that, Strathmore, which has the most intensive berry production in the United Kingdom, produces the best strawberries and raspberries in the UK, in my opinion. Does my hon. Friend agree that registration of those regional foods could do a lot to encourage tourism to those areas? We could use the excellence, exclusivity and greatness of traditional foods to promote Angus, Strathmore and the rest of the Tayside area.

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