protected status european food

For many countries, food is more than just what they consume: it’s part of their innate history, traditions, and culture. It’s a thing to be proud of and to be protected. So it’s no surprise that certain countries have enough pride and will to stump an iconic traditional product with their mark, declare it theirs, and fiercely fight if anyone tries to disprove that claim.

With time came an organized approach: countries started to apply specific labels to products and foodstuffs associated with particular regions, production methods, and ingredients. In 1993, the EU introduced a unified system, folding all of its member states and trade agreement partners into one structure. 

Under the EU system, only one country can hold the protected status for a specific product, ensuring only authentic products are marked according to the designations. Two countries cannot share a single product between them, even though Europe’s complex interlocked history often has trouble proving the original ancestry of certain foods. 

In such specific cases, traditions like means and methods of production, as well as ingredients used, can play the deciding role. Generic product names cannot be granted protected status, but a variety of those products can. 

German stollen is a good example: stollen, the traditional Christmas sweet bread, can be and is baked everywhere, within Germany or outside its borders. But Dresden stollen cannot, as the German authorities have granted authentic Dresdner Christstollen Deutsche g.g.A.-Produkte status, the status that has transferred into the EU’s PGI/IGP status. 

Let’s break down what those acronyms mean below:

The EU Protected Food Classifications: PDO, PGI, TSI

The EU awards three types of protected indication to products and foodstuffs produced by its Member States: two prominent (PDO and PGI) tied to the geographic area and one comparatively minor (TSI) that puts emphasis on methods and ingredients used and isn’t connected to the production area.

PDO: Protected Designation of Origin

PDO, or Protected Designation of Origin, is the strongest classification that can be afforded to a product and has the strictest guidelines. It’s reserved for foods that are unique to specific regions, from ingredients to production methods.

For a product to qualify for PDO status, it must prove that:

  • Its origins are tied to the specific geographic area;
  • It’s fully prepared, processed, and produced in the determined geographic area;
  • It uses only ingredients produced in that specific geographic area;
  • Its characteristic properties are historically tied to and almost exclusively determined by the specific geographic area (such as the recognized know-how of local specialists).

PGI: Protected Geographical Indication

PGI, or Protected Geographical Indication, also emphasizes the ties of certain foods to specific geographic areas, but the qualifying rules are laxer than with the PDO. Where a product can only obtain PDO status if it’s proved that every stage of its creation is tied to the specific area, PGI status can be awarded if the product has established that:

  • Its origins are linked to the particular geographic area;
  • Its characteristic properties are historically tied to and almost exclusively determined by the specific geographic location (such as the recognized know-how of local specialists);
  • At least one of the stages between preparation, processing, and production takes part in the determined geographic area. 

TSI: Traditional Speciality Guaranteed

TSI, or Traditional Specialty Guaranteed status, was created to provide certain protections for traditional dishes to force maintenance of their classic characteristics. Unlike PDO and PGI indications, it doesn’t require the product to be prepared, processed, or produced in specific areas. 

Instead, the product can be made outside of the area (and even the country) it originates from, but to qualify for a TSI status, it must satisfy specific requirements:

  • Either production method or processing must be “traditional,” i.e., proven use of no less than 30 years in the domestic market, a period that allows for transmission between generations;
  • The food name must identify with the traditional character of the product;
  • Certain raw ingredients must be used if the recipe specifies.

Before the EU unified the standards into one system, certain countries - most notably France, Italy, and Spain - already had their own domestic schemes protecting the quality of certain foods and wines. These systems are still in action today, including the old acronyms. Here’s what they stand for:

French Protected Food Classifications: AOC, AOP, IGP, STG

France is likely the first country that implemented a food protection system: the production of Roquefort cheese was regulated by the Parliament in 1411. Once France introduced a more modern system, it was afforded an AOC status in 1925 and holds a PDO status on the EU territory today.

In the 90s, French products were reclassified to fit the EU standards once the new system was established to harmonize the entire European food protection system. While French rules were laxer during that time, almost all of the products were afforded a protected status of some kind, except for Gruyere cheese. 

AOP: Appellation d'Origine Protégée

AOP is the French equivalent of Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), and it was created after the EU system was established, replacing the old AOC. 

AOP standards thus follow PDO standards and are awarded to foods that are entirely processed, prepared, and produced in designated areas, using ingredients from that area, and are generally viewed as a creation of unique factors specific to the region.

Example: Isigny Butter (Beurre d'Isigny). Butter or even French butter isn’t a PDO product since it’s a generic name. But Isigny butter is a PDO product, as the recipe uses only specific ingredients (cow’s milk cream from Bessin and Contentin), precise production methods, and can only qualify as Insigny butter if it’s produced in specific municipal areas no further than 30 km from Isigny-Sur-Mer.

IGP: Indication Géographique Protégée

IGP is the French equivalent of Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) and follows the same standards: the product must be either processed, prepared, and produced in designated areas but can complete one or two of these stages in other areas, as well as use ingredients from other regions. 

Example: Egg Pasta from Alsace (Pâtes d'Alsace)Alsace egg pasta can use raw ingredients from anywhere, as long as they fit quality-wise. But the pasta itself can only be manufactured in factories located in the Alsace region and can only qualify if they follow a specific recipe with a tightly controlled ingredient ratio.

French products can use both French and EU labels. If you visit a non-French European grocery store, you may encounter Insigny butter that’s labeled PDO instead of AOP (especially if the product was packaged for export). On the other hand, in the same grocery store, you may find Alsace pasta labeled IGP instead of PGI if the manufacturer decides to stick to the French acronyms. Both labels are only awarded to authentic protected foods; neither is counterfeit.

STG: Spécialité Traditionnelle Garantie

The equivalent of Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSI). A dish qualifies if its name identifies with the traditionally viewed character of the product, and its production method can be qualified as “traditional.”

Example: Berthoud. It’s a baked cheese dish that’s made with Abondance cheese, Savoy wine, either Madeira or Port, and flavored with garlic, pepper, and nutmeg. 

AOC: Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée

AOC was the protected food indication before the AOP was created. It’s currently still active in France but used almost exclusively for wines; AOP is almost entirely phasing it out when it comes to foods.

Italian Protected Food Classifications: DOP, IGP, STG, DOC 

Italians started systematically protecting their wines’ production methods and names at the beginning of the 20th century, but they only implemented their modern protection system for foodstuffs in 1963. Thirty years later, they were folded into the EU’s system, but, similar to France, the local acronyms remained and are now running concurrently with the EU ones.

DOP: Denominazione di Origine Protetta

An equivalent of Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), it’s awarded to products and foods that have proven that not only is their entire production process from A to Z is tied to the specific area. They must also have intrinsic ties to the methods and know-how of local specialists. 

Example: Bronte Pistachios. Pistacchi di Bronte DOP are a Sicilian specialty. They’re grown on the slopes of Etna, with volcanic soil playing a prominent role in forming their intense flavor profile and bright green color. Bronte pistachios are only harvested every other year, with farmers discarding newly formed fruits during “off” years so that the trees can recuperate. 

IGP: Indicazione Geografica Protetta

IGP is the Italian equivalent of Protected Geographical Indication (PGI). Once again, it’s an “either-or” situation instead of “and”: as long as the product is either processed, prepared, or produced in designated areas and proves that the local know-how is a determining factor in the production process, it can qualify for the IGP status. 

Example: Balsamic Vinegar of Modena. Balsamic Vinegar of Modena is an interesting case since the Italian authorities and the EU have awarded it two different classifications:

- Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena DOP;

- Aceto Balsamico di Modena IGP.

The main difference between the two is the production process. Both the Balsamic Vinegar of Modena DOP and the Balsamic Vinegar of Modena IGP use the same raw ingredients, but while the grapes used for the IGP version can be grown anywhere in the Emilia Romagna region, the grapes used for the DOP version can only be grown in Modena. Balsamic Vinegar of Modena IGP is also aged for around three years and bottled in various sizes, while the DOP version is aged for no less than twelve years.

STG: Specialità Tradizionali Garantite

The Italian equivalent of Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSI). A dish qualifies if its name identifies with the traditionally viewed character of the product and its production method can be described as “traditional” under the EU specifications.

Example: Pizza Napoletana. Authentic Pizza Napoletana is a simple combination of tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese. It’s the ingredients that matter: for Pizza Napoletana STG, the chef needs to use either San Marzano tomatoes or Pomodorino del Piennolo del Vesuvio and Mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOP.

DOC: Denominazione di Origine Controllata 

DOC was modeled after the French AOC system and primarily used for protecting wines. Technically, all wines that were classified as DOC were automatically awarded DOP status on the EU territory, but in Italy itself, the manufacturers still prefer labeling their wines as DOC.

Spanish Protected Food Classifications: DO, DOP, IGP, ETG

The Spanish also started protecting their signature products from wine. In 1925, the Rioja region was given protected status in a system similar to the French. In 1970, the scheme was remodeled to include agricultural products with social and economic significance. 

DO (DOCa): Denominación de Origen (Calificada)

Denominación de Origen (DO) status was created in 1982 specifically for wines. In 1991, an additional classification was created for supreme wine regions. Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa) has thus far been awarded only to the Rioja and Priorat regions.

Similar to Italian DOC, while the EU automatically awarded all DO and DOCa wines the PDO status, local Spanish winemakers prefer sticking to the old system, so the two acronyms are now used concurrently.

DOP: Denominación de Origen Protegida

The Spanish equivalent of Protected Designation of Origin (PDO). Follows the same standard, i.e., the product must be processed, prepared, or produced entirely in the designated geographic area and be significantly influenced by local traditions. 

Example: Manchego cheese. Authentic Manchego cheese DOP (or PDO, both labels are correct) can only be produced in the La Mancha region, with whole milk from Manchega breed sheep that were raised in one of the four regions specializing in producing Manchego.

IGP: Indicación Geográfica Protegida

The Spanish equivalent of Protected Geographical Indication (PGI). The local traditions and know-how must significantly influence the product. As long as it’s either processed, prepared, or produced in the allocated geographic area, it can qualify for the status even if other parts of the process take place somewhere else.

Example: White Asparagus of Navarra. White Asparagus of Navarra is grown exclusively in the fertile River Ebro Valley. It’s grown without receiving direct light, allowing the plant to maintain its signature pale color. White Asparagus of Navarra is renowned for its special soft texture and nutty flavor. 

ETG: Especialidades Tradicionales Garantizadas

The Spanish equivalent of Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSI). A dish qualifies if its name identifies with the traditionally viewed character of the product and its production method can be described as “traditional” under the EU specifications.

Example: Panellets. Panellets are small marzipan cookies, usually round, but their shapes can vary. TSG status distinguishes between Panellets made from basic marzipan, coarse marzipan, and fine marzipan.

You can find a wide range of foods with protected indications in the special section of our European grocery store online

Law Enforcement: How Does it Work?

The European Commission is responsible for ensuring that the member states adhere to the protected food classification rules. The process is currently governed by the European Council Regulation (EC) No 510/2006 of 20 March 2006: On the Protection of Geographical Indications and Designations of Origin for Agricultural Products and Foodstuffs.

While the vast majority of products and foods that were awarded protected status by their native countries (like Italy and France) were automatically granted the same protected status by the EU, qualifying for the protected status now is no easy fit. The EU regulations are much tighter than the original country-by-country standards were, and the process is much stricter.

If a manufacturer desires to obtain a protected indication for its product, it must first apply to its own government. Suppose the Member State determines the product is produced, processed, and prepared in ways that fit the Regulation No 510 criteria. In that case, it forwards the application to the European Commission for final approval. 

Applications are available to the public at each stage of examination, and if another manufacturer feels like awarding protected status to the product in question could harm their business, they have the right to object to the proposed status altercations. The Commission is obliged to investigate the objection and act accordingly. 

The most common objections have always been against generic names, as once registered, the denominations are protected from genericization, and all other manufacturers must seize producing the product. Cheese and meat products are a good example: generic Brie cheese wasn’t granted a protected indication, but Brie de Meaux holds French AOC status.

In the EU, foods with protected indications are treated as intellectual property. Only products that meet the specific standards that were determined once the status was awarded can use the mark of protected designation. 

The combination of indications with words such as “style,” “type,” “method,” etc., is prohibited so that products produced in similar methods or with similar ingredients but not meeting the established guidelines cannot advertise and profit off of their similarities with the originals. 

What’s more, if a protected product has packaging that has become distinctly associated with it, other similar products that don’t share its protected indication cannot use a similar packaging style.

Customs officers have a right to seize and confiscate goods that don’t adhere to these standards. If the country responsible for importing such products is a member of the EU, the products may be treated as false advertisement, counterfeiting, or, in specific cases, even an issue of public health. The EU trade partners are a little more complicated: if there’s a bilateral agreement between the EU and the importing country, then the trade partner is obliged to follow the rules regarding protected indications. But as protected indications are treated as part of intellectual property rights, certain intellectual property rights (such as trademarks, for example) may supersede DOP/PGI/TSG status.

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