By Stephen Castle
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
BRUSSELS: In the European Union, carrots must be firm but not woody, cucumbers must not be too curved and celery has to be free of any type of cavity. This was the law, one that banned overly curved, extra-knobbly or oddly shaped produce from supermarket shelves.
But in a victory for opponents of European regulation, 100 pages of legislation determining the size, shape and texture of fruit and vegetables have been torn up. On Wednesday, EU officials agreed to axe rules laying down standards for 26 products, from peas to plums.
In doing so, the authorities hope they have killed off regulations routinely used by critics - most notably in the British media - to ridicule the meddling tendencies of the EU.
After years of news stories about the permitted angle or curvature of fruit and vegetables, the decision Wednesday also coincided with the rising price of commodities. With the cost of the weekly supermarket visit on the rise, it has become increasingly hard to defend the act of throwing away food just because it looks strange.
Beginning in July next year, when the changes go into force, standards on the 26 products will disappear altogether. Shoppers will the be able to chose their produce whatever its appearance.
Under a compromise reached with national governments, many of which opposed the changes, standards will remain for 10 types of fruit and vegetables, including apples, citrus fruit, peaches, pears, strawberries and tomatoes.
But those in this category that do not meet European norms will still be allowed onto the market, providing they are marked as being substandard or intended for cooking or processing.
"This marks a new dawn for the curvy cucumber and the knobbly carrot," said Mariann Fischer Boel, European commissioner for agriculture, who argued that regulations were better left to market operators.
"In these days of high food prices and general economic difficulties," Fischer Boel added, "consumers should be able to choose from the widest range of products possible. It makes no sense to throw perfectly good products away, just because they are the 'wrong' shape."
That sentiment was not shared by 16 of the EU's 27 nations - including Greece, France, the Czech Republic, Spain, Italy and Poland - which tried to block the changes at a meeting of the Agricultural Management Committee.
Several worried that the abolition of standards would lead to the creation of national ones, said one official speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions.
Copa-Cogeca, which represents European agricultural trade unions and cooperatives, also criticized the changes. "We fear that the absence of EU standards will lead member states to establish national standards and that private standards will proliferate," said its secretary general, Pekka Pesonen.
But the decision to scale back on standards will be welcomed by euro-skeptics who have long pilloried the EU executive's interest in intrusive regulation.
One such controversy revolved around the correct degree of bend in bananas - a type of fruit not covered by the Wednesday ruling.
In fact, there is no practical regulation on the issue. Commission Regulation (EC) 2257/94 says that bananas must be "free from malformation or abnormal curvature," though Class 1 bananas can have "slight defects of shape" and Class 2 bananas can have full "defects of shape."
By contrast, the curvature of cucumbers has been a preoccupation of European officials. Commission Regulation (EEC) No 1677/88 states that Class I and "Extra class" cucumbers are allowed a bend of 10 millimeters per 10 centimeters of length. Class II cucumbers can bend twice as much.
It also says cucumbers must be fresh in appearance, firm, clean and practically free of any visible foreign matter or pests, free of bitter taste and of any foreign smell.
Such restrictions will disappear next year, and about 100 pages of rules and regulations will go as well, a move welcomed by Neil Parish, chairman of the European Parliament's agriculture committee.
"Food is food, no matter what it looks like," Parish said. "To stop stores selling perfectly decent food during a food crisis is morally unjustifiable. Credit should be given to the EU agriculture commissioner for pushing through these proposals. Consumers care about the taste and quality of food, not how it looks."
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