The European Cider & Fruit Wine Association has severely criticised the schemes, which are active in 95 council boroughs, and has supported OLN’s campaign by writing to the European Commission demanding urgent action.
The body’s secretary general, Jan Hermes, told the commission: “The UK is a growing market for EU cidermakers. Cidermakers from Sweden, Ireland and Belgium are looking to the UK market to grow their businesses. However, the high strength restrictions severely limit access and, more importantly, new product development to compete in the market.”
Martyn Railton, founder of craft beer importer Euroboozer, which distributes brews from across the world to UK retailers, has also written to the commission with concerns that the schemes are unfairly restricting commercial practices.
Calls for Brussels to intervene over the controversial schemes intensified as retailers also expressed concerns.
Morrisons said it refused to sign up over fears it would be breaching competition law, as legal experts have warned.
The retailer was named along with nine others, including Tesco, as being a participant in Eastbourne’s Sensible on Strength scheme in a press release distributed to local media.
But a Morrisons spokesman said it didn’t join schemes because it could be breaching anti-competition legislation.
Tesco also denied it was involved in the initiative.
But Jay Virgo, Eastbourne Council’s senior specialist adviser, said: “I’m not sure what Tesco’s head office says, but the manager at the store was very happy at a grassroots level to sign up. He said: ‘I’ll have one of those stickers [to put on the door] – it will stop street drinkers coming in. I’ll definitely do that.’”
Competition lawyer Martin Rees said it was understandable that retailers were worried about the schemes and desperate to distance themselves from any involvement.
He said: “The council may be suggesting that the information about membership has been put into the public domain by each retailer individually by, for instance, putting a sticker up. The council would not then have circulated confidential information about the intentions of competitors. This does not get over the difficulty that it is very likely individual retailers have signed up on the understanding, as explained by the council, that others will or have done so. This understanding is inherent in the nature of a scheme.”
He added: “Moreover, if the list of adherents was published before all of them had individually gone public, that would still amount to divulging information about commercial policy between competitors. The council must not use the list of adherents as a basis for recruiting more. Having publicised it, it seems inevitable that they will.”