Last fall, the British grocery chain J Sainsbury sought to introduce a "Halloween" range of fruits and vegetables in its stores. Included would be ‘Witches fingers’ – carrots with more than one finger, ‘Zombies brains’ – undersized cauliflowers and ‘Ogres toenails’ – bendy cucumbers amongst others. While selling such vegetables for Halloween decoration might have been a good idea, Sainburys had a different agenda, a "Save Our Ugly Fruit and Veg" campaign to highlight some of the European Commission’s most mocked regulations, those requiring that all fruits and vegetables in 36 categories meet marketing standards in order to be sold anywhere in the European Union.
As of July 1, the regulations have been rescinded as to 26 of the 36 categories. And so, at least in some countries, the nobbly carrot and the bendy cucumber are back on store shelves. If anyone wants to buy them.
Ostensibly, the repeal of these regulations was made to cut red tape and to reduce waste of edible food in harsh economic times. But others have a different take on what the effect of the repeal of these regulations will be.
Under the new regulations, there are no marketing standards, beyond the general marketing standards (which essentially require that fruit and vegetables be ripe, intact, free of pests, free of odor, free of abnormal external moisture and capable of being transported to market) for the following 26 classes of fruits and vegetables:
- aubergines (eggplant)
- brussel sprouts
- courgettes (zucchini)
- cultivated mushrooms
- hazelnuts in shell
- headed cabbage
- ribbed celery
- walnuts in shell
- witloof (chicory)
Ten fruits and vegetables, comprising about 75% of all sales in the EU, are still covered:
- citrus fruit
- peaches and nectarines
- sweet peppers
- table grapes
Even these can be sold without meeting the specific standards if they are so marked.
Eight classes of fruits and vegetables have never needed to meet even the general standard:
- mushrooms other than cultivated mushrooms
- bitter almonds
- shelled almonds
- shelled hazelnuts
- shelled walnuts
- pine nuts
At first blush, the repeal of the reguilations woudl appear to accomplish what Sainsburys was seeking last Halloween. But this is the EC, whose bureaucracy is notorious. The Law of Unintended Consequences appears to be one that is honored daily in Brussels.
In an interview by Mira Slott for Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, two officials of Freshfel Europe, a produce industry group, indicate that this is exactly what has happened. While in some countries, notably the UK and Germany, as well as the smaller markets of Denmark and Cyprus, the repeal of the EC standards will mean essentially no government regulation of the physical appearance of food (beyond the general standards), other countries may impose their own regulations. And the entire advantage of the old regulations, which was that produce was sold under identical standards in all 27 EU countries, is lost. Instead, besides the chance of differing standards from the various countries, there is the strong possibility that buyers in the marketplace will start imposing their own standards, which will differ from buyer to buyer. As Philippe Binard, Freshfel’s Secretary-General, told Ms. Slott:
Proliferation of private specifications is a fear we have. We won’t say it will necessarily occur. The differentiation in standards could create all kinds of problems and confusion, such as what labeling is used on the box.
The other point made in the interview was that the produce industry didn’t ask for, and the EC’s own agricultural advisers didn’t approve, the change.
What probably was needed was a simpler solution, such as allowing fruit and vegetable to be marked "ungraded."
That was the fictional solution in the wonderful BBC comedy, "Yes, Minister", when Jim Hacker, the Minister of the make-believe Ministry of Administrative Affairs in the British Cabinet, was confronted with a challenge to the British sausage. He and his permanent parliamentary secretary, Bernard Woolley, had the following exchange:
Bernard Woolley: "They cannot stop us eating the British sausage, can they?"
Jim Hacker: "They can stop us calling it a sausage though. Apparently it has got to be called the Emulsified High-Fat Offal Tube."
Bernard Woolley: "And you swallowed it?"
Eventually, though, reason prevailed, or at least reason as understood within European bureaucracy, and the thing is renamed the "British Sausage." It’s hard to imagine that life couldn’t imitate art that well today.