Post-Brexit jam – Part 1

‘Brexit’, the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, enables us to look afresh at the question of British jam standards, without being disturbed by the fear of European over-regulation. In Part 1, we look at the ‘jam wars’ that took place in the country in 2013.

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On 27 March 2013, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs of the British government (DEFRA) launched a public consultation1 of UK businesses and organisations ‘involved in the manufacture of jam and fruit spread products’. It proposed to amend the ‘Jam and Similar Products (England) Regulations 2003’ and reduce the minimum sugar content of jam from 60% to 50%.

Jam and Similar Products (England) Regulations 2003:

Screenshot, source Jam fact sheet 2010, Foods Standards Agency, food.gov.uk

According to The Guardian, a British broadsheet, the move ‘provoked a national outcry’2. The partisans of the current rules were opposed to those who had started to make slightly less sweet products and who couldn’t call them jams as a result:

“We have our differences in the way we make foods.
I love French and Italian jams, but I do love a firm-set British
jam too – I like those lumpy bits of unmelted jam on toast…
That jelly set is something that’s quite special in British jams
and it’s because of the sugar content; you’ll start to lose that”.

“Reducing the minimum sugar content will lead to products with
dull colours that don’t taste the same, and certainly don’t last as long”.

“It’s utter rubbish. Our shelf life is 18 months – and we
wouldn’t be able to sell it if it looked like ‘coloured mud’.”

“Making jam purely from fruit gives it a vibrant colour.”

“The regulations are really old. Jam-making has advanced,
and the pectin available now means
you can get jam to set at almost any sugar content.”

(source: “Jam wars, will reducing sugar destroy Britain’s jam?”, The Guardian2)

Many British newspapers put the blame on the European Union and its ‘imposed’ regulations3-4. But in fact, the 60% sugar content threshold had long been a British industry standard, ‘cooked up in the 1920s by scientists at the University of Bristol’5 long before the European Union existed. As for European ‘rules’, the United Kingdom had freedom to reduce sugar content in jams if it wanted to, as other countries like France and Germany had already done:

“In fact EU law – not handed down from Brussels but agreed
by the UK government with other Member States – always gave
the UK flexibility to cut the minimum sugar content in jam to 50%.”
(source: European Commission blog6)

Europe, as other markets like the USA, was only asking for one principle to be respected: you wouldn’t sell abroad what you wouldn’t sell in your own country. British made ‘jam’ had to be considered as ‘jam’ within Britain to be accepted abroad. Only fair.

The problem in reality lay within the UK. Restrictive British rules were preventing some British fruit preserves manufacturers from selling their products as ‘jam’. Those outdated rules were limiting their freedom to use the term ‘jam’ as a competitive advantage.

The standards had not changed despite the fact that jam production processes and the quality of jam jars had long evolved, allowing for less sugar to be added as a preservative for the jam to be safe to eat. We were not in the 1920s anymore, when concerns about the food safety of canned foods were at their peak with deadly poisoning caused by botulism7, which probably influenced the Bristol scientists who formulated their guidelines for the British jam industry at the time.

And with the general trend of adding less salt and sugar in our food nowadays, it is no surprise that tastes have changed and that many people as a result now prefer jams lower in sugar and higher in fruit.

However, we are now in 2017 and the British rules still haven’t changed. The implementation of the 2013 DEFRA proposal, planned for October 2013, didn’t happen:

The results of the consultation haven’t been published. Screenshot 31 March 2017, http://www.gov.uk.

Having said that, article 50 was triggered two days ago. The United Kingdom is on its way out of the European Union with the hope of becoming its ‘closest friend and neighbour’, as stated by the British Prime Minister in her 29 March letter to the President of the European Council8. With the fear of being absorbed into European federalism becoming past history, the country may now find it easier to solve those internal regulatory issues.

Advancing jam regulations will appear as secondary to many, however I find it an interesting case to look at. Part 2 of this article will investigate the future of jam and similar products post-Brexit, in particular the opportunities for British and European citizens to enjoy traditional and more innovative fruit preserves on both sides of the Channel.

 

  1. DEFRA consultation: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/jam-and-similar-products-england-regulations-2013
  2. Jam wars: will reducing sugar destroy Britain’s jam? The Guardian, 30 0ctober 2013
  3. When jam is not a jam? When the EU says it should be a fruit spread The Independent, 15 March 2013
  4. ‘Ridiculous’ EU jam laws cut back by Vincent Cable The Telegraph, 15 March 2013
  5. Jam’s sticky situation: How much sugar is too much? BBC Food, 21 August 2013
  6. Getting into a jam, again, as MPs debate UK plans to change sugar content European Commission blog, 1 November
  7. Koenig, Glenn (1971). Neuropoisons: Their Pathophysiological Actions. Plenum Press, London, p.284
  8. Prime Minister’s letter to Donald Tusk triggering Article 50 UK government website, 29 March 2017

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