British watercress farmers are one step closer to becoming the Champagne of the cress world after passing the first stage in the application process for EU protected status for the age-old method of growing watercress in pure, mineral-rich flowing water.
After two years of preparation and screening, Defra has submitted the application for traditional speciality guaranteed (TSG)-protected status to the EU Commission for consideration.
If the growers successfully win EU backing, only plants grown in and harvested from flowing water will be allowed to be sold as watercress. Cress grown in soil will, by law, have to be called something other than watercress.
The EU Commission now has 12 months in which to seek further information from Defra or advice from a special scientific committee.
If satisfied with the application, the commission will publish it for final scrutiny. If no objections are raised within six months of publication, watercress will be granted TSG-protected status, joining two other British products that hold it - Traditional Farmfresh Turkey and Traditionally Farmed Gloucestershire Old Spots Pork.
To date, 42 UK products have been registered for EU protected status and a further 30 are seeking registration.
Defra is working hard to encourage more products to apply because the UK is behind its European counterparts in achieving recognition for its heritage products.
France, for example, has more than 160 products with protected status and Italy has more than 150. It should be noted however, that both countries had national schemes for protecting food names before the EU scheme was introduced, so in some senses the UK is playing catch-up.
REACTIONS TO THE INITIATIVE
- Jim Paice, food and agriculture minister
"We're supporting watercress as it progresses with its application and wish it every success in getting protected food name status. I'd like to see more of our British fruit and veg following the example of watercress and applying for this European-wide accreditation scheme."
- Tom Amery, NFU Watercress growers' Association
"If growers produce watercress on land then they should make this clear on the label so that consumers can make an informed choice. Our concern is that the customers are being deceived because they would expect the crop to be grown in spring water with all the benefits this brings."
- Steve Brine, MP for Winchester
"It is vital to support the industry in its efforts to protect an ancient farming technique. I am delighted that this latest step will bring benefits to the watercress farmers in areas such as Alresford, surrounding Winchester, which has a reputation as the 'capital' of watercress."
- Tim Nevard, conservationist
"Watercress farms play an important role in the ecology of the area. They are an historic feature of a number of ecologically globally-significant chalk headwaters and the presence of watercress beds has protected these aquifers from development for consumptive water extraction for many years.
"Because watercress requires unpolluted spring water, watercress beds also protect these headwaters from industries such as fish farming, whose discharges may not be as benign as those flowing from watercress beds."