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28 March 2011 13:35:39 |Produce,News

Watercress aims for EU protected status

James Paice MP, Food and Farming Minister with Steve Rothwell of the Watercress Alliance

James Paice MP, Food and Farming Minister with Steve Rothwell of the Watercress Alliance

British watercress farmers are one step closer to becoming the ’champagne’ of the cress world after passing the first stage of their battle to gain EU protected status for the age-old method of growing watercress in pure, mineral rich flowing water.
Food and Farming Minister Jim Paice said, while on a visit to New Spitalfields Market: "We’re supporting watercress as it progresses with its application and wish it every success in getting Protected Food Name status. I’d like to see more of our British fruit and veg following the example of watercress and applying for this European wide accreditation scheme."
After some two years of preparation and screening, Defra has been able to submit the application for TSG (traditional speciality guaranteed) protected status to the EU Commission for consideration. If successful and the watercress growers win EU backing, only plants grown in and harvested from flowing water will be allowed to be sold as watercress. Cress grown in soil will, by law, have to be called something other than watercress.
TSG is one of the protected labels granted by the EU which are loosely based on the French wine system of appellations and were originally introduced to help protect farming communities from cheap copies. Perhaps the best known is PDO, or ’Protected Designation of Origin’ which guarantees the food is produced, processed and prepared within a certain area, eg Melton Mowbray pork pies, champagne or Parmesan cheese.
In contrast, TSG is not about the place where the product is grown or produced but the method which is used to produce it. It is designed to protect food that has been grown or produced using the same traditional methods for at least 50 years. It has been granted to fewer than 25 products including jamon serrano from Spain and mozzarella cheese in Italy and there are currently only six British products seeking TSG status, British watercress being one. British watercress growers, concentrated in Hampshire and Dorset, have been cultivating watercress in flowing water for over two hundred years. This age old technique, however, is being threatened by land-grown imitators seeking to benefit from the renaissance that watercress has been enjoying. In recent years watercress has been given the status of a "superfood" thanks to the amazing list of health benefits it can offer, especially its anticancer properties. It is a favourite ingredient of the ranks of celebrity chefs in the UK and even has an annual festival dedicated to the start of the watercress season in May. This is held in the British watercress capital of Alresford in Hampshire.
Watercress (Rorippa nasturtium aquaticum) is a semi aquatic plant and was historically referred to as Water-Cress to reflect the fact that it is grown in water. It is cultivated near streams and rivers where the springs rise. Farmers harness this water directly from the springs deep underground, and channel it to flow through the shallow gravel bases of their watercress beds. The water is introduced gently at first and then in ever increasing volumes as the plants grow, with a mature bed needing up to 20,000 gallons of flowing water per acre per hour. The beds are gently sloping as it is imperative that watercress grows in flowing water so as to ensure the minerals in the water on which the crop feeds are evenly distributed.

The water is only "borrowed" as once its work is done, it is allowed to flow back on its original course towards the river. Water for a traditional watercress bed is either from bore holes drilled in the underlying aquifer or rises by natural, artesian pressure as springs. The watercress industry is concentrated in the south of England [i]where the capillary like structure of the Chalk Downs provides an abundant supply of crystal clear water.
Association member Tom Amery commented: "If growers produce watercress on land then they should make this clear on the label so that consumers can make an informed choice about what they are buying. Our concern is that currently the customers are being deceived as they would expect the crop to be grown in spring water with all the benefits this brings to this superfood."
MP for Winchester Steve Brine adds his support to the watercress growers: "Just eight years ago watercress farmers were seeing sales flagging as relatively new products entered the market. Thanks to the hard work of the growers to gain consumer recognition of the amazing health benefits of eating watercress, the industry has grown in a decade from one with retail sales valuing only £30 million to one with sales of £60million. It is vital for the watercress growing areas and the country as a whole to support the industry in its efforts to protect an ancient farming technique. I am delighted that this latest step will bring benefit to the watercress farmers in areas such as Alresford, surrounding Winchester, which have a reputation as the ’capital’ of watercress."
Leading conservationist, Tim Nevard adds: "Watercress farms play an important part in the ecology of the area too. They are an historic feature of a number of ecologically globally significant chalk headwaters and the presence of watercress beds has protected these aquifers from development for consumptive water extraction for many years. As watercress requires unpolluted spring water, watercress beds also protect these headwaters from industries such as fish farming, whose discharges may not be as benign as those flowing from watercress beds."
Watercress contains more than 15 essential vitamins and minerals, gram for gram it has more vitamin C than oranges, more iron than spinach and more calcium than milk. Extensive research is also showing that the mustard oils which give the plant its peppery bite may have important cancer fighting compounds[ii].
The traditional method of growing watercress in flowing water has remained unchanged since the first watercress farm opened in this country near Gravesend in Kent in 1808, though the method of growing watercress in flowing water dates back to ancient times. Hippocrates, the founder of modern medicine, was said to have chosen the site for the world’s first hospital, on the island of Kos, close to a spring suitable for cultivating watercress which he regarded as essential to the treatment of his patients.
The EU Commission now has 12 months in which to seek further information from Defra or advice from a special Scientific Committee. If satisfied with the application the Commission will publish it for final scrutiny. If no objections are raised within six months of publication, watercress will be granted TSG protected status joining the two other British products which hold it, Traditional Farmfresh Turkey and Traditionally Farmed Gloucestershire Old Spots Pork.

To date 42 UK products have been registered for EU protected status and a further 30 are seeking registration. Defra is working hard to encourage more products to apply as the UK is behind our European counterparts in achieving recognition for our heritage products (France has over 160 products with protected status and Italy over 150). It should be acknowledged however, that those countries already had national schemes for protecting food names before the EU scheme was introduced so in some senses the UK is playing "catch-up".


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