The Big Six:
AOC - The Appellation d'origine controllée, is a French label (pictured below) created in 1905, guaranteeing a strong and direct link between the product, its methods of production and its geographic origin (i.e. the idea of terroir). Product quality and production methods and conditions are strictly controlled and monitored. Products must meet certain quality criteria (especially with regard to taste) and each product has it's own particular specifications. Examples of products which can have AOC labelling - numerous raw milk cheeses; Roscoff onions; Bresse chickens; many wines.
AOP -The Appellation d'origine protegée is a European label (pictured below), created in 1992. The guarantees are the same as for AOC and to obtain an AOP a French product must already hold an AOC. Examples of products which can have AOP labelling - dried Lapland reindeer meat; Bronte green pistachios.
IGP -The Indication géographique protégée is a European label (pictured below) created in 1994. Producers form collectives and decide on the geographic boundaries for their product, which must be typical for the region and which they believe derives something special from its geographic location (i.e. the idea of terroir again). Product traceability is clear and validated. Production methods are not dictated, but in practice are generally traditional and with low chemical inputs. Examples of products which can have IGP labelling - Corsican clementines; Parmesan cheese; Agen prunes.
STG - The spécialité traditionnelle garantie is a European label (pictured below) created in 1992. It recognises main ingredients or methods of production (i.e. traditional recipes), but is not concerned with geographic origin (i.e. it is possible to make the product anywhere in the EU, so long as the method of production is traditional). The products with this label must have existed in the marketplace for at least one generation and must showcase a specific foodstuff. Examples of products which can have STG labelling - Belgian beers; mozzarella cheese; Serrano ham; rope grown mussels; Neapolitan pizza.
Label Rouge - This French label (pictured below) was created in 1960 and mainly applies to meats, poultry, cured and preserved foods, fruits and dairy products. The production methods, taste and overall quality of products are evaluated regularly. Most consumers believe produce with this certification is a guarantee of a high quality foodstuff, produced by best practice extensive farming methods. However, producers are not allowed to claim directly that their products are better than other traditional products. Each product is regulated by a separate set of strict criteria relating to the husbandry and production processes, but antibiotics and chemicals may be used. This label is open to all products, no matter what their geographic origin, including from outside the EU.
AB - Agriculture biologique is French for 'organic farming'. The label was created in 1920 by a group of producers and others concerned about modern farming methods. It has been an officially recognised certification since 1981. The criteria has now been adopted Europe wide and a new logo (pictured below) was introduced in July 2010. The label's main concerns are the preservation of the environment, animal welfare and encouraging biodiversity. Producers in this category are particularly passionate and involved in all aspects of production. Consumers are guaranteed that these products are certified pesticide and GM free. Animals are treated with natural remedies (not antibiotics). The welfare of animals is paramount, so forcefeeding (le gavage) is forbidden, meaning that traditionally produced foie gras and magrets cannot be certified organic. Free access to open air pasture is obligatory. Only products comprising at least 95% organic ingredients have the right to certification. The result is an extremely high quality product (try French organic carrots or milk, for example), but the organic tomatoes available in the middle of winter, which have been transported from warmer climes, cost an absolute fortune and should be avoided.
Other labels you might see:
Produits de la ferme: this indicates that the product has been made on the farm, with one principal ingredient which is sourced directly from the farm. These products can be bought on the farm but there is no criteria with regard to quality. My experience is that these products are often extremely good value for money, being good quality and costing significantly less than in the shops.
Produits de montagne: for foodstuffs other than wine, including herbs. The main ingredients and the processing must be located in the mountains. The good mountain pasture with herbs and wildflowers give a particular flavour to milk and cheeses, but there is no guarantee about use of chemicals or intensive husbandry.
L'agriculture raisonnée: established in 2002, it aims to pre-empt tough regulations to protect the environment by encouraging farmers to plant hedges and green manures over winter. Less chemicals are used, but compared to AB certification, it is a much weaker label.
Médaille du concours agricole: created in 1870, the agricultural show medals are administered by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. Around 17 000 products are tasted each year (wines, liqueurs, fruit juice, dairy products, oils, foies gras, honey, poultry, seafood and so on). One product in four receives a distinction and one in 12 a gold medal. 2400 judges taste and evaluate the products, but with 1416 gold medals issued, they are a bit devalued.
These include the various Fairtrade marks, such as Artisans du Monde, Fairtrade (Max Havelaar) and Alter Eco. These are all administered by the Fairtrade Labelling Organisations. Nearly 1.5 million producers and disadvantaged workers benefit directly from Fairtrade schemes. Consumers have the satisfaction of becoming 'consumactivists', and it is a strong label, but for consumers based in France, not focused on local products.
Produits de l'année - a marketing idea launched in 1987 to promote new products. They are nominated by consumers based on three criteria - attractiveness, innovation and usefulness. Last year 38 products received the label, including Kiri in a pot, compressed coffee, and ices in plastic pockets.
Saveurs de l'année - created in 1996, a panel of 120 consumers judge products sent in by participating (fee paying) brands. About three quarters are given the right to use the logo for 14 months. This year 171 food products were put forward for the label.
For details of our private guided tours of chateaux, wineries, markets and more please visit the Loire Valley Time Travel website. We would be delighted to design a tour for you.