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EC interference in whisky distilleries

November 17th, 1992
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BRITISH WHISKY

Myth: British whisky producers have launched a campaign “Save our Scotch” from Commission interference. The Malt Distillers Association of Scotland asserts that EC regulations on food hygiene will ban the use of oak casks where whisky ferments and ages. They also assert that distilleries may be ordered to replace their traditional earth floors with materials which can be washed easily.

Response: This is a misapprehension which appears to be based on the misreading of two Council Directives, both of which are aimed at protecting consumers health.

The first Directive, dated 21.12.1988, brings together national legislations on “materials and objects” which are in direct contact with the foodstuff. It specifies that materials which could be a health hazard or which could change in an “unacceptable” way the composition of foodstuff should not be allowed to contaminate foodstuffs. The term “unacceptable” does not apply to other changes in the initial composition of these foodstuffs. Oak casks are in fact highly “acceptable” as the changes they produce actually enhance the whisky. The Commission has put forward specific Directives which apply to plastic materials and ceramics. No initiative is envisaged for materials made out of wood.

The second Directive, causing concern for whisky producers, requires companies in the food industry to take precautions to ensure that their foodstuffs do not constitute a health hazard. This Directive, submitted by the Council on 10 January 1992, is still a proposal. The first reading by the European Parliament took place after the summer and the Council could come to a common position by the end of December 1992.

What has the Commission proposed? It simply proposes that company managers should be made responsible for hygiene in their factories and that the national authorities should be responsible for making all the necessary controls, for destroying the foodstuff when necessary and, in the most extreme cases, for closing factories down for an appropriate period of time. The proposal lists the requirements vis-a-vis the building, the premises and the machinery. For instance, floors should be clean, made of materials which are watertight, non-absorbent, easily washable and non-toxic and be well-maintained. This does not mean that the traditional earth floors in Scottish distilleries will be banned. The proposal provides for the possibility of obtaining a derogation to this general rule by firms which, for justifiable reasons cannot comply with the rules, but can respect the proposal’s principle. The proposal has been amended and firms must now show their compliance with the required hygiene standards only.  Therefore, earth floors are acceptable as long as they are clean.

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