Northern Foods reaches deal on Melton Mowbray pork pies

By Ahmed ElAmin

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Melton mowbray pork, European union

Northern Foods has been given five years to switch the
manufacturing of its Melton Mowbray pork pie brand to the East
Midlands, a region traditionally associated with the British
pastie.

In return the company will drop its court case against the Department for Environment Food andRural Affairs (Defra), and by extension local producers belonging to the Melton Mowbray PieAssociation. The company will also have to change the recipe and processing techniques it uses toproduce the pies over the next five years.

The long running court battle between Northern Foods and the Defra has evolved into a groundbreaking case over the EU's geographical indications (GI) system and the problems it can pose formanufacturers. If the European Commission grants GI status to the pie, it would be the firstrecipe-based product to receive such protection in the UK.

Pie makers in the Melton Mowbray area want to protect the recipe and create an exclusive 1,800square-mile zone in which the pork pie can be made. The area extends beyond the borough of Melton toencompass the cities of Leicester, Nottingham and Northampton.

The application also specifies that genuine Melton Mowbray pork pies must be grey in colour andmade from uncured pork. The recipe also calls for producers to bake their pies free standing, givingit a unique shape. Pie producers outside the area use cured pork and sa metal hoop to give theirpies a standardised look.

Samworth Brothers, the association's dominant member and the market leader, manufactures MeltonMowbray pork pies in Leicester, which is within the zone.

The EU's rules require that GI approved areas stick to the specifications outlined in theirapplications, including the product's recipe, and keeping production and sourcing within a definedgeographical area. Defra applied for protected geographical indicator (PGI) status under the GIsystem. For PGI products, the geographical link must occur in at least one of the stages ofproduction, processing or preparation a food.

The battle began last year when Defra applied to the Commission for PGI status for the MeltonMowbray name on behalf of regional producers. Once approved by the Commission, other producersoutside the protected area would be legally prevented from using the Melton Mowbray name.

In a statement Northern Foods said Defra's "clarification" provides the company with anachievable timeframe for the company to manage any transfer of Melton Mowbray production to one of its pastry sites within the proposed zone of protection.

In its appeal Northern Foods argued that the proposed zone was artificially large, created toprotect Samworth Brothers, the Melton Mowbray Pie Association's dominant member and the marketleader. Samworth Brothers manufactures Melton Mowbray pork pies in Leicester.

Northern Foods has argued that the protected status would create what it calls an"artificial zone" for the manufacture of the pies. The Melton Mowbray PieAssociation's dominant member and leading commercial manufacturer, Samworth Brothers, produces bothcured and uncured pies under the name from its plant in Leicester.

Northern Foods currently makes its Melton Mowbray pies in Market Drayton, Shropshire, andTrowbridge, Wiltshire, all outside the proposed protected zone.

"We have consistently argued that the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie application represented a cynical misuse of EU rules by the dominant producer in the market, for its own commercialadvantage,"​ said Carol Williams, the head of legal affairs at Northern Foods. "The clarification we have obtained from Defra vindicates our approach and ensures a level playing field for the industry."

Facing a situation in which it would lose a growing multi-million euro market for its MeltonMowbray pies, Northern Foods decided to take the case to court in an effort to bloc the application.On 21 December 2005, the High Court ruled in favour of the Defra's application and indicated it could continue its approval process through the European Commission.

Northern Foods indicated it would appeal. On 24 January the Court of Appeal decided to turn down the company's first application for permission to appeal the December ruling.On 14 March 2006, the Court of Appeal ruled that case would be referred to the European Court of Justice.

Simultaneously to its legal battle, Northern Foods has been in discussions with Defra to seek a commitment to a transitional period in whichproduction could be transferred to a site within the PGI zone in the event that the appeal process failed and the application proceeded to registration.

The registration process is still proceeding through the European Commission. A decision is not expected for at least 12months, Northern Foods said.

Melton Mowbray Pork Pies are made by both large scale food manufacturers and small artisanproducers up and down the country. The market is worth an estimated £51.7m per year and is thefastest growing section of the pork pie market, says Northern Foods.

Samworth Brothers has a 62 per cent market share, followed by Northern Foods with a 24 per centmarket share. Samworth Brothers manufactures over 99 per cent of the pies produced by associationmembers. The Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association lodged an application with Defra in 1999.

In 1993 EU legislation came into force which provides for a system for the protection of foodnames on a geographical or traditional recipe basis. The system is similar to the familiar"appellation controllée" system used for wine.

The scheme highlights regional and traditional foods whose authenticity and origin can beguaranteed. Under this system a named food or drink registered at a European level will be givenlegal protection against imitation throughout the EU.

To date, 36 UK products have been registered with the EU including Stilton Cheese, CornishClotted Cream and West Country Farmhouse Cheddar. A further 18 applications are being considered.

The EU wants international recognition for the GI system and has applied to World TradeOrganisation to get it ratified. That application is being contested by the US, which claims thesystem is nothing but another form of trade protection.

Northern Foods is also facing a similar battle against the Cornish Pasty Association, which hasapplied to Defra for PGI status. Defra, which has a policy of promoting traditional foods, has toapprove the application before it is sent on to the European Commission for consideration.

The Cornish Pasty Association is a group of about 40 of the county's pasty manufacturers andbakers. ACNielsen values the UK's retail savoury pastries market at around £307m and growingby six per cent year-on-year.

The EU's GI regime is meant to protect local food producers across the bloc from having their traditional brand names used by processors elsewhere. The system has shut out producers who were using what they thought was a generic name for their products. Since its introduction in 1992 about 700 foods and drinks have been approved for GI protection, with another 300 applications under consideration.

About 40 per cent of the bloc's citizens say they are willing to pay a 10 per cent premium for specially designated products, according to a Commission survey.

Related topics: Processing & Packaging

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