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Vodka 'whisky whiskey' definitions go down smoothly for MEPs

Food safety - 19-06-2007 - 13:08
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MEPs adopted first-reading report and settled on a definition of vodka that would allow the drink to be produced from any agricultural material, provided that it was appropriately labelled. The co-decision report by Horst Schnellhardt (EPP-ED, DE) was adopted in Strasbourg today, setting out the definitions and labelling of spirit drinks in the EU. The first-reading compromise with the Council, clears the way for the regulation to come before a final Council vote probably in September.

The Commission's proposal had originally suggested establishing three categories of spirit drinks, which the EP's Environment Committee rejected, arguing for a single category of 'spirit drinks'. This single category is maintained in the compromise with the Council, as well. Although the Environment Committee had argued for a two-year transitional period, the compromise on the table would apply three months after the entry into force of the regulation.
 
Vodka: controversial until the last drop
 
The most hotly debated point in the vote centred around the definition and labelling of vodka. The Environment Committee's proposal had suggested that traditional vodka only be made from grain, potatoes or sugar beet molasses. Vodkas made from other raw materials would have had to clearly indicate what they were made from, with a large label on the bottle (2/3 of the size of the word 'Vodka' on the label).
 
The adopted compromise with the Council foresees a slightly different approach: traditional vodka could only be made from grain or potatoes (not molasses), and other raw materials would only be allowed to be used if they were clearly indicated on the label. The size of this label, however, would not be specified.
 
Some MEPs from traditional vodka-producing Member States (Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Sweden) would have preferred to only allow the name 'vodka' to be applied to spirits made from grain, potatoes and molasses, but their amendments failed to garner enough support among MEPs.
 
Traditional whisky names safeguarded
 
The House voted for existing geographical names to remain valid. These could be supplemented by additional descriptions provided they are regulated at national or regional level or are included in the technical specifications, such as "single malt" and/or "Highland" for Scotch whisky. Applications for geographical designations must justified by the Member State of origin. This point is unchanged by the compromise.
 
Co-decision and flavourings: the end of a spirited debate
 
The Committee's proposal not to allow flavouring of spirits was maintained by the compromise with Council, as was their call to maintain existing geographical designations. On the other hand, the Committee's insistence that any change to these regulations be subject to the co-decision procedure was not accepted by Council, so the definitions of individual spirit drinks (laid down in Annexes to the Regulation) will be subject to comitology.
 
British speakers in the debate in Strasbourg on Monday, 18 June 2007
 
Gary Titley (PES), congratulated Mr Schnellhardt on his patience above all else.
 
"The spirit industry is extremely important to us, creating jobs, status, export and tax revenue. Therefore it has been important to update the 1989-1990 regulations, to bring greater clarity and greater legal certainty to improve the definition of the main spirit drinks and to resolve any problems with spirits with a quasi-geographical indication status.
 
What we now have is a proper registration system for geographical indication, which is important, and I am glad we have got rid of the three categories of spirits. We have now ended up with something that is compatible with the WTO and TRIPS, which ensures smooth running in the internal market, prevents fraud and counterfeiting, protects the consumer and does not underplay and undermine solid, long-established industries, such as the second biggest vodka producer in Europe – the United Kingdom – where in Scotland vodka is such an important industry. That is why we must support these proposals.
 
I think the Commission proposal was better than the compromise, but it is important to move forward with the compromise on vodka, bearing in mind geographical indications will protect forever Polish vodka, Finnish vodka, Swedish vodka, Lithuanian vodka, and so on."
 
Linda McAvan, (PES) stated that the Socialist Group will be supporting the trialogue compromise and all its elements, as outlined by the rapporteur, She thanked Mr Schnellhardt for all his hard work and, like Mr Titley, his patience, because this has become a very complex dossier and one on which emotions have started to run high.
 
"We are supporting this compromise because we want the European drinks industry to have high-quality products for consumers and we want to protect our industry on the world markets. What we do not want to do with this legislation is to give one country’s type of production an advantage over another country’s type of production. That is not the aim of the legislation. There is room for all European producers, as long as they meet high quality standards.
 
That brings me to the vodka compromise. I think it is a good compromise. Why? Because, as Mr Schnellhardt has said, for the first time it recognises that there is a special place for traditional manufacturers using cereals and potatoes. But, at the same time, it allows other long-standing producers of vodka to continue to market their products on the European market – and they will be labelled.
 
We cannot have a situation as proposed by some of the amendments which seek to take certain European producers off the market. That would never get a majority in this House and would never get a majority in the Council. Everybody has to work in a spirit of compromise and what we have got on the table has something for everybody.
 
We have also got to work with facts. It is simply not true that the compromise on vodka would allow you to make vodka, for example, from animal waste, as has been circulated again in this House today. That is not true. It is made from very high-quality agricultural products.
 
I want to say something to the British Conservatives about vodka. I understand from their press release last week they are not supporting the compromise now and they have accused Labour of selling the British vodka industry down the river. I have to say that this is vital for European jobs, it is vital for the drinks industry, which employs 60 000 people, and has the support of British industry as well as European vodka producers and other drinks manufacturers. I can see surprise from some Members. I hope we will have this clarified because I have the press release here.
 
Finally, it is not just about vodka, it is about high-quality drinks. Many colleagues from different countries have come to Mr Schnellhardt, myself and other colleagues and asked for certain changes because of their traditional production. All those things have been met. The Council and the Commission have been very helpful and I very much hope that tomorrow, after, as Mr Titley has said, 18 years have passed since we started trying to get this legislation on the statute book, we just go ahead and do it and protect European jobs."
 
Ian Hudghton (Greens/EFA) stated that as a Scots MEP he has an obvious interest in any regulation that relates to whisky. However, he stated, we also have other national drinks, including a very significant economic interest in vodka and gin distillation and bottling.
 
"Some say that spirits should be treated the same, but vodka and whisky are not the same, and this proposal simply has to recognise that fact. Vodka has traditionally been made from different ingredients in different areas; Scotch whisky is a product of centuries of traditional practice, by contrast. The first reference to Scotch whisky in Scotland was in Exchequer records in 1494/95. The first taxes were imposed in 1644.
 
Some spirits have traditionally been rounded off using sugar. Scotch whisky has not, and this regulation must not allow that to happen. Protecting the term ‘Scotch whisky’, as well as the methods of production under geographic definition, is extremely important for Scotland for obvious reasons. Some details still have to be underlined in the technical files, and I look forward to that.
 
However, this first-reading compromise – the product of lengthy and very heated exchanges – is something that, in the spirit of that compromise, I am now prepared to accept, and I hope that the House will accept it tomorrow."
 
Roger Helmer (NI) responding to Mr Maaten's question if we have not been to see a distillery which is a craft industry. "Well, Mr Maaten, yes I have. I worked in the industry for several years and I can tell you that a malt whisky distillery is indeed a craft industry, but a vodka or grain whisky distillery is an industrial process and the process for producing vodka produces pure alcohol whether you make it from sugar or from potatoes or from anything else.
 
All this talk about consumer protection is nonsense. The product is identical and the reason we should not compare vodka with whisky – or brandy, as has been rightly pointed out by my colleague on the other side of the Chamber – is because in those products, the ingredients significantly affect the flavour. Whisky is only whisky if it is made in the proper way, but vodka is based on pure alcohol.
 
If I may make a general point, we should not be seeking to change the established meanings of words by legislation. However, in this case the compromise proposed by the rapporteur seems to be the best outcome on offer so I suppose that we must reluctantly support it. As happens so often in the European Union, we have to make the best of a bad job."
 
Struan Stevenson (EPP-ED) confirmed that the UK Conservatives are indeed supporting Mr Schnellhardt’s amendment on vodka. The issue, he said, which our Scandinavian and Polish colleagues appear to be banking on now is the old equality-with-whisky argument.
 
"I have heard people in the House this evening saying that that we could possibly have a situation where whisky is going to be made out of grapes. Well I have to say that these arguments are completely bogus. We are trying to define these products for the benefit of consumers to ensure that what is in the bottle conforms to their expectations of what a whisky or a vodka should be. As distillers will tell you, if you distil at a lower alcoholic strength, more taste comes over the still. Spirits like whisky are distilled at a low strength and derive their taste from the raw materials. Other spirits like vodka are distilled at a high strength and may then even be filtered through charcoal to remove the taste of the raw materials.
 
Our Nordic colleagues and their allies are trying to have it both ways. They are asking us to define a product not by reference to its characteristics or by reference to what the consumers expect, but by reference to the raw materials that their producers currently use. It is interesting that they have not sought to include sulphite waste, which was the predominant raw material in Sweden in the 1920s, nor apples, nor coal and yellow turnips, which have all been used in Poland in the past. Parliament should not be in the business of defining products so as to exclude producers and distort competition. We should be protecting the consumer, and it is for that reason that we support the approach being taken by Dr Schnellhardt, which avoids artificial restrictions on production while ensuring that consumers are adequately informed."
 
James Nicholson (EPP-ED) congratulated the rapporteur on his report which he considered it to be an excellent piece of work. This report and this debate, he said, have, to say the least, provoked a considerable disagreement between many Members, between Groups and within groups. Mr Nicholson believed that that support should be given to the compromise which has been reached.  There are other proposals, but they cover what one specific viewpoint holds to the detriment of the other.
 
"The bottom line should be the quality and the standard of the product. Additives are and must be controlled, but you cannot ban products that have been used for a long time. We have to be aware of the needs of the spirit industry, as well as of consumer protection.
 
As some have said, this has turned out to be a complex report, with some very strong and different points of view, but we must have an acceptable agreement. Compromise agreements sometimes dilute the original intention of the directive, but on this occasion I believe that this is the best we can achieve at the present time. This is a very important and serious subject and we must get it right. The debate on what is vodka has removed some of the importance of this directive and that is unfortunate, but that sometimes occurs in politics.
 
I listened to the different contributions and to my two colleagues from Scotland who protested that they have the longest-standing whisky. Where I come from in Northern Ireland we have a little product called Bushmills and we would probably have a good debate as to who actually owned the oldest whiskey on the island of Ireland! I shall conclude on that note."
 
REF.: 20070615IPR07881