Calling vodka ‘vodka’? EU agrees new spirit drinks regulation

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EU agriculture ministers have reached agreement on the new Spirit Drinks regulation, answering the thorny question of what can be labelled ‘vodka’ in a vote which has left traditional producers such as Poland “frustrated” with large producers in the UK.

The new regulation – agreed at first reading between the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament on 17 December – “enhances the clarity of EU legislation on spirit drinks” by combining two existing regulations into one. It should “help producers market their products while providing new clarity for consumers,” according to the European Commission.

The main bone of contention between EU member states was the definition of vodka, in what has been dubbed the “vodka war” (EURACTIV 1/02/07). Traditional vodka-producing countries such as Poland, Sweden and Finland argued strongly that only spirits distilled from cereals or potatoes should be labelled as vodka. This provoked anger among other producing countries such as the UK, where most vodka is mass-produced using sugar as a raw material.

The new regulation – which was finally passed with Poland, Finland and Sweden voting against and Lithuania abstaining – leaves the current definition of vodka unchanged. What it does change, however, is the labelling requirements: in effect, vodka made from cereals or potatoes will henceforth be labelled simply as vodka. Vodka based on other raw materials, meanwhile, will bear the indication “produced from” supplemented by the name of the raw material used.

The agreement was hailed as a “major achievement” by Mariann Fischer Boel, Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development. “I am pleased that we were able to reach a pragmatic compromise on the definition of vodka, which will allow producers of this important product to continue going about their business. I think this new Regulation will help our producers build on their success and make things clearer for consumers.”

But Poland said it was “frustrated” with the definition of vodka, arguing that consumers would end up being “misled” over the raw materials used to produce the alcohol. In a declaration, Poland said that the definition “does not safeguard the interests of those who produce vodka from traditional raw materials, who produce 98% of all the vodka produced in the EU.”

“This constitutes a licence to experiment and seek out cheap raw materials in the territory of the European Union, or in third countries”.

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