How much protection do German sausages need? That’s not only a good question, it’s a very important one. It was posed by Christian Schmidt in an interview with der Spiegel magazine earlier this week when he warned, “If we want to take the chance to make the most of free trading with the huge American market, we can’t protect every sausage and cheese as a specialty anymore.”
Now, Schmidt isn’t just anyone; he’s the federal minister of food and agriculture and as such the patron saint of German food farmers and producers. They’ve been worried ever since their minister announced that many of their protected products could lose that protection when the Transatlantic Free Trade Agreement between the European Union and the United States goes into effect.
High ranking industry lobbyists warned that original Thueringer Rostbratwurst could soon be manufactured somewhere in Kentucky. Consumer advocates groused that they wouldn’t put up with Black Forest ham made in Texas. That quickly touched off protests from Swabian Spaetzele lovers, Nuremberg gingerbread fans and Emmenthaler cheese enthusiasts everywhere, all of whom now had a new enemy: the minister of food and agriculture who wanted to sell them out to the Americans.
Minister Schmidt quickly tried to assuage his critics. “I intend to protect all sausage and cheese products as regards their legitimate geographical origin,” he announced on his ministry’s website. He further requested that in ongoing trade negotiations with the U.S. the European Commission take seriously existing protections regarding geographic origin of products.
But Schmidt’s words are contradictory: If everything is to remain as it is, then changes need not be made to anything. Nevertheless, his words carry a warning to the agricultural and food industries, in that he requested the European regulations regarding protection of regional specialties be again taken more seriously across Europe.
And that’s exactly at the core of the debate: Rules in general. Those demanding adherence to the rules by others shouldn’t be allowed to ignore the rules or stretch them to the limit to benefit their own businesses themselves.
The food industry branch is expert in that area, and not only in questions of geographic origins. Producers have invented new definitions for apple spritzers and apple juice, endowing them with miracle properties. Words like “natural” are liberally tossed about on any and all packaging; for example, soft drinks recently examined by consumer advocate organizations in the state of Hesse where packages displayed the advisory “natural aroma.” The problem they found was the natural aroma didn’t come from apples but from cellulose instead, while the packaging and the claim prominently featured mouth-watering pictures of rosy red apples.
Legally, such deception isn’t actionable. But it shows how well the industry knows how to play on consumer expectations, and that common sense doesn’t necessarily coincide with food and grocery regulations.