London and Brussels should be “pragmatic” and prepare to either extend Article 50 or the transition period so that Brexit talks can progress “in the right way”, Mars Wrigley Confectionery’s regional president for Europe, Russia, CIS and Turkey told EURACTIV.com.
Shaid Shah said Brexit will have implications whichever way the final destination plays out.
“There are three essential outcomes: hard Brexit, soft Brexit or no Brexit. There are three guidelines we are looking to be prepared and plan for. This isn’t an easy exercise because the ambiguity of what is likely to follow is not good for business, no matter the outcome,” he said.
Shah explained that prior to the referendum, his company had warned that the UK should not exit the EU from a business perspective.
“However, you have to respect the result of the referendum. The fundamental belief for us is that it is in both the EU’s and the UK’s mutual interests that the future relationship is one that gets towards growth and prosperity for consumers.”
“What is important in our opinion, for our company and our consumers on both sides of the channel, is that the negotiating parties should maintain a converged regulatory environment, form a suitable customs union and all parties should start creating certainty where ambiguity is creating a lot of anxiety,” he added.
Shah noted that the UK’s recently published white paper goes in the direction of a converged regulatory environment and a suitable customs union for agri-food.
“Of course, there is still a lot to work on and the devil is in the detail, but we encourage the negotiating parties to speak, take out the ambiguity and we believe that the UK and the EU should be pragmatic and prepare to either extend Article 50 or the transition period so the negotiations can progress in the right way,” he emphasised.
FoodDrinkEurope, which represents EU food and drink manufacturers, also welcomed the fact that the UK published its plans, saying it’s a step towards the sector’s main priorities.
“In the White Paper, the UK government confirms its commitment to frictionless trade – recognising the benefits of continued regulatory alignment in the agri-food sector, a facilitated customs agreement for the island of Ireland, and a sensible common rule-book approach for the future EU-UK relationship,” the association said in a statement.
However, it expressed its concern about the lack of explicit reference to UK participation in the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
He added that the single market for food and drinks is sometimes taken for granted by policymakers and emphasised that Brexit shows the importance of converging constantly and talking about what the single market brings.
“Of course, we have challenges to address too. The only thing for us to remember is that the single market for food is more than just a free movement of goods; it’s about innovating and enhancing the competitiveness of our industries, driving quality much more than ever before and at the same time showing that our food chain remains sustainable.”
Keep labels simple
Referring to labelling schemes, he said there was an increasing interest from consumers to understand the products they are consuming and a growing demand for interpretative labelling of foodstuffs.
Traffic light food labels is a scheme that was first introduced in the UK, with the aim of providing consumers with a clearer indication about the amount of salt, sugar or fat contained in the products they buy.
They are red, amber or green, based on the quantity of specific nutrients, allowing the consumer to quickly decide which product to choose.
France has introduced a similar ‘Nutri-Score’ system, which was praised by the European Regional Office of the World Health Organisation (WHO).
“The challenge we have is that various governments and stakeholders across Europe are reflecting on how best to help consumers make choices, and the reason why people want an interpretive labelling system, that has unanimous support among member states (like in the UK and Ireland), is a good one,” Shah noted.
“One important thing is that we keep labelling products in a simple and easy to digest way to help consumers make easy choices,” he said.
He added, though, that a multiplication of different schemes that confuse consumers should be avoided and that stakeholders have to start converging on one point of view.
“The European Commission and the member states can provide those legal certainties and support to start looking at convergence […] what they find acceptable and what they don’t in terms of credibility and that will drive us towards a point of convergence. So for me, it’s important that the Commission uses its powers across member states and stakeholders to jointly discuss labelling system,” he emphasised.
Referring to the new rules on the origin of primary ingredients in food, Shah said the industry needed further clarification as there are a number of dimensions.
“Broadly, we welcome the harmonisation of rules on labelling, on the origin of primary ingredients. We still have some work to do in developing an understanding and what now.”
Dual quality food
Shah also commented on the ongoing debate on dual food quality products, which has triggered strong reactions in Eastern European countries especially.
The industry’s general argument is that each product basically adjusts to local needs, while Eastern European countries say products with dual quality are “discriminatory”.
Asked who defines the local needs of each country, Shah replied: “Before companies launch a product on the market, there’s a lot of research that goes into quite a number of areas, from local preferences to looking into the competitors, how you access raw materials, legislation, nutritional information and so on.”
He noted that most major companies have a pretty comprehensive quality management system in place which ensures that “two things remain at the heart of what we are trying to do: The first is quality to our consumers and a consistent great taste that consumers in our local markets continue to like and come back for.”
“It’s important to find a common European solution and a harmonized approach to tackle the unjustified differences in product composition. From our perspective, we appreciate the work that is done by the Commission and the Parliament to investigate the question of geoquality, which is an important one,” he added.
Commenting on the calls for identical recipes everywhere in Europe, he said it would be a “real shame” if identical recipes were imposed on business everywhere in Europe because it would eliminate differentiation.
“We would be denying the fact that Europe is rich in diversity and in the end, Europe and the single market are not about imposing a bland common denominator, but much more about respecting and celebrating our differences within a common framework.”