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26 October 2005

Are UNESCO foodies at heart?

I'm not one for over-weening regulation, give me a free market anyday.  But, the decision by UNESCO (the United Nation's cultural arm) to "promote the diversity of cultural expressions" may have some interesting consequences for the global food industry - and not the crappy end of the market, but the decent, dare I say, gourmet, market.

UNESCO has reached an agreement that all participating member states will protect and promote the diversity of cultural expressions.  Essentially this is a protectionist measure.  UNESCO made no attempt to define what is a cultural expression, it is what people want it to be.  It would therefore seem to protect everything from Morris Dancing in the UK, to foie gras production in France.  If you are an interested party and decide that what you are doing adds to the cultural diversity of the UNESCO member states, then you are, in theory, protected by this agreement. 

Food is one area that is often cited as being cultural and one can see the benefits of such an agreement to foie gras producers fighting the movement to ban their products.  The farmer's argument, especially in France, is that this is a cultural product, the UNESCO Convention works to promote that and any attempt to interfere with cultural diversity is contrary to the Convention.  In theory, that's fine for protecting the general production of foie gras.  It's less fine if the Convention is pushed to its logical conclusion that only France can produce foie gras, because it is such a central part of French culture.

However, we don't need the UN to make such rulings.  Afterall, this week the European Court of Justice ruled that only feta cheese produced in Greece is feta.  I'm not going to go into the merits or otherwise of the Court's decision.  There are numerous food products that are given "Protected Designation of Origin" status.  Think Champagne, Brie de Meaux, Kalamata olives, Parmigiano Reggiano.  The list goes on and on, so one can see why the Greek feta producers were so keen to get PDO status for their product. 

What is interesting is how the UNESCO agreement will sit with the EU's support for PDO status.  Unlike the ECJ, UNESCO's Convention has no way of ensuring compliance.  As the press release to the Convention says

"The Convention does not include any mechanism for sanctions."

Therefore, there's nothing binding about the Convention and there's no way of making it binding.  But, one has to believe that the Convention came about, at least in part, because of bodies such as the ECJ making rulings in favour of specific geographies and the produce that comes from them.

What does this mean for us food lovers?  It should help ensure that we get original products.  Hopefully, that means the best products, but there is no certainty of that.  If there is a general move towards protectionism, it might also mean higher prices as supply is reduced.  The PDO status affects the name given to products, not the way they are produced.  As such, cheeses similar to Parmesan can be made elsewhere, but only those from the Reggiano can be called Parmigiano Reggiano.  It is not clear whether the UNESCO ruling will act in a similar way, but if it's not, then this could further add to prices.  It would seem to be an impossibly large task to police it any other way.  The other impact that comes to mind is that it is yet another hit to those producers who make products that are to intents and purposes the same, just not made in the relevant region.  Judy Bell's Shepherds Purse Cheeses, that she called yorkshire feta are going to have to be entirely rebranded.

As with all these global decisions, one often has to just wait-and-see before we can judge just how effective the Convention is going to be.  It would be nice to think this will work out and will on the one hand help protect cultural diversity, but not be used as a protectionist tool.


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Thanks for the offer. I'd seen the post on Spittoon but unfortunately can't make it - hopefully next time.

Of course it'd mean higher prices. There's no "might" about it. Less supply with the same amount of demand...prices shoot up. All there is to it.

@Mathew thanks for your comment. I should really do some follow-up on this story and see where things are now.

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