A combination of the impending Brexit and the apparent spread of lousy national food regulations across European Union member states is threatening the growth of Europe's borderless markets in food. That's the conclusion of a new report released last week by FoodDrinkEurope, an industry lobbying group.
The EU, as a bloc, has no shortage of awful food laws. For example, Europe's so-called "kebab war" ended late last year only after the EU agreed to let makers of spit-cooked meat use phosphates in their food.
But the FoodDrinkEurope report, Implementing the EU Food & Drink Industry Ambition for Growth & Jobs, argues that Brexit and other national regulations are making for a "difficult and uncertain climate" that threatens the "well-functioning Single Market" in Europe.
"The Single Market is one of the EU's greatest achievements," the report declares, "but renationalisation, different interpretations and 'gold-plating' of EU laws increasingly lead to barriers for food and drink companies within the Single Market." (Gold-plating is a derisive term that refers to EU laws that are strengthened and become entrenched when EU member nations adopt them as their own.)
Food and beverage makers in Europe have been skittish over the looming Brexit and what it will mean for companies that market food and drink both in the Britain and on the continent. But the apparent growth of regulations within EU member countries poses a separate—and perhaps greater—challenge.
The FoodDrinkEurope report highlights some of these challenges, including discriminatory national food taxes that have been made under the guise of combating obesity.
But there are countless others. In England, EU rules have contributed to food prices that are nearly twenty percent higher than they should be, as a recent report detailed. The EU has an 83-page definition for "Prosciutto di Parma," which I bemoaned here recently. Italy, birthplace of prosciutto, also has (as the headline of one of my columns last year put it) many crappy new food laws. In Portugal, a new law mandates that all public buildings that serve food—prisons, hospitals, schools, and the like—provide vegan food choices. And in Switzerland, the government has banned restaurants from boiling live lobsters for their customers.
While the Swiss law doesn't ban lobsters, it will probably make them more expensive, could make customers less likely to order them and, in turn, will make restaurants less likely to buy and serve them. In that way, the Swiss law will resonate beyond the country's borders; it's exactly the sort of law the FoodDrinkEurope report cautions against.
Still, the Swiss lobster-boiling ban could have been worse. It was only adopted after another measure—"to ban all lobster imports to the country"—was scrapped. Swiss animal-rights activists are now seeking to ban imports of foie gras.
Europe's food and beverage industry is the bloc's largest manufacturing industry, responsible, according to the FoodDrinkEurope report, for more than $1.3 billion in sales and employing more than four million people. It's the EU's largest employment sector and the world's largest food and beverage exporter.
It's not difficult to imagine that a combination of overly burdensome EU regulations, a growing number of lousy national food laws in EU member countries, and a post-Brexit climate that includes trade barriers between Britain and the EU could combine to cause serious harm to the region's food and beverage industry. That outcome is one that should be avoided at all costs.