Brexit could damage the reputation of Scottish food and drink by removing valuable legal protections from iconic products such as Arbroath smokies and Scotch beef, the former minister responsible for the sector has warned.
Richard Lochhead, speaking out for the first time since stepping down as cabinet secretary for rural affairs, food and environment in May, urged the UK government to ensure Scotland is not excluded from the EU protected food names scheme in the event of Brexit.
He told The Times that otherwise “cheap imitations” would be able to undermine Scotland’s brands and the country’s “reputation as a producer of world-class food and drink”.
The EU’s PFN scheme awards protected geographical indicator (PGI) status, meaning that a product can only be made by agreed methods in the area stated on the label. The scheme is designed to ward off fakes of inferior quality, and to stop consumers being misled.
Before a Scottish parliament debate tomorrow on the effect of the EU referendum on rural matters, Mr Lochhead told The Times: “By volume and value, Scotland has some of the largest protected food names in the EU, with high-value products such as Scotch Beef PGI and Scottish Farmed Salmon PGI accounting for around £700 million in sales.
“Now we have a UK government that seems determined to go down the hard Brexit route, effectively throwing up in the air this vital protection for our food and drink names.
“If it continues to follow this route and exits the single market, Europe could easily dump Scottish products from its PGI scheme, along with English and Welsh. After all, what is to stop them dropping our access to 500 million consumers across Europe when they only have access to 65 million British consumers in return?
“This could be a huge setback for such iconic brands as Arbroath Smokies and Stornoway black pudding and, the most recent to gain PGI status, Traditional Ayrshire Dunlop cheese, and for those who have applications in the pipeline, such as Dundee cake, Forfar bridies, Ayrshire early potatoes, Orkney beremeal, Cambus O’May cheese, as well as those considering applying, such as Scottish cider brandy.”
Mr Lochhead, who was the cabinet secretary responsible for Scotland’s multibillion-pound food and drink sector for nine years, and is still MSP for Moray, added: “It would undo all the hard word we have done to gain protected status, which is there to stop cheap imitations undermining our brands and Scotland’s reputation as a producer of world-class food and drink.
“Given the importance of Europe as an export market for our food and drink sector we need to know exactly the UK government’s position in safeguarding PGI as soon as possible.”
Fourteen Scottish products have gained PGI status, with several going through the application process at present and at least four in pre-consultation.
The process officially takes four years, though it can take longer. Any application is lodged with the Scottish government, which puts it out to consultation before passing it to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in London and thereafter to Brussels for the final decision.
A successful application has been shown to increase demand for a product. Ann Dorward, a cheesemaker who waited eight years before gaining PGI status for her Traditional Ayrshire Dunlop cheese last year, said: “The wait was certainly worth it. Gaining PGI has been a fantastic thing not just for my Traditional Ayrshire Dunlop cheese but for all my products because it has raised the public awareness of their provenance, how they are made and the stories behind them. It has increased food tourism to the area and made people realise there is a long history of cheesemaking here.
“People increasingly want to know where their food comes from and the EU protected food names scheme has really helped fly the flag for my part of Ayrshire.
“My cheese has been around for a very long time but nobody really knew about it until it got PGI status, then suddenly everyone woke up to its existence. It has increased demand, which in turn has helped secure employment in the area.
“It is good for me to know that the way my cheese is made will live on after me and won’t be forgotten about.
“France and other countries have protected foods. It would be wrong if the UK just let this go. They need to act now to safeguard the system for Scottish foods. Otherwise, all the hard work will just have been a waste of time.”
A Defra spokesman said: “We are still a member of the EU and continue to engage with EU business as normal, which means the protected food names scheme remains in place.
“These products are extremely important to our reputation as a great food nation and we will work to ensure they continue to benefit from protection in the future.”