Thursday, November 13, 2008

As problems go ...

… this is not, it would seem, the most important one. But it is useful to remind everyone that the shape of fruit and vegetables sold in most outlets in this country is determined by the European Union, not to mention the fact that we shall no longer hear from europhiliacs or apologists for the EU that there are no cucumber directives, ha-ha. It is just another eurosceptic scare story.

Apparently, it is not a eurosceptic scare story and it seems that the EU is in charge of the cucumber and banana curvature, which it is going to deal with before next July in order to provide more variety and cheaper food. The idea that the market might take care of the problem with people buying what they want at whatever price they can or want to afford is alien to these people’s thinking. The Single Market is not a market as we know it.

Interestingly, the news story has a questionnaire, which deals with whether people would or would not buy mis-shapen fruit and vegetables as the debate has been largely about that: is it customers or is it supermarkets who decide that apples should be perfectly round and a certain size in diameter while cucumbers should be straight or, at least, not have a greater angle of curvature than prescribed. The answer has always been neither. It is the EU that decides and questions of whether people think it gross are irrelevant.

In July, 2005 I wrote about the Fragrant Commissar, Margot Wallström, going on her hols fact-finding missions and also explaining the need for yet another rapid-rebuttal unit. The Commission simply had to deal with all these nasty rumours the evil eurosceptics were spreading:
Among the measures are plain-language summaries of the benefits of European policies and a rapid rebuttal unit to counter false claims.

This team would be able to fend off outlandish stories about the effects of Brussels regulations, which have famously included claims that smoky bacon crisps faced a ban, or cucumbers had to be straight.
At the time I pointed out that before they started rebutting the team might like to have a look at Commission Regulation (EEC) 1677/1988, which lays down quality standards for cucumbers, mentioning among other multitudinous matters:

Cucumbers are classed into the four classes defined below:
(i) 'Extra' class
Cucumbers in this class must be of superior quality. They must have all the characteristics of the variety.

They must:
- be well developed
- be well shaped and practically straight (maximum height of the arc: 10 mm per 10 cm of length of the cucumber)
- have a typical colouring for the variety
- be free of defects, including all deformations and particularly those caused by seed formation.

Not a straight cucumber Directive then but a Regulation, which is directly applicable to member states without the least necessity to go through the legislative. Let me add that these rules do not simply apply to cucumbers sold to other countries, as we are sometimes told. Certainly, if you sell to a different market, you find out what the rules are and adjust your production to it. Even better, you find out what people who shop in that market like. Otherwise, you will not be able to trade.

These rules, under “Council Regulation (EEC) No 1035/72 of 18 May 1972 on the common organization of the market in fruit and vegetables (1), as last amended by Regulation (EEC) No 1117/88 (2), and in particular Article 2 (3) thereof” actually apply to all cucumbers sold in shops, ordinary markets and supermarkets in this country, whether we like it or not. Farmers’ markets have been allowed to get round the problem and some of the smaller corner shops have simply done so, either not knowing about the Single Market or hoping that nobody will notice them.

Technically, however, those people in the corner shops who sell cucumbers whose maximum height of the arc is more than 10mm per 10cm of length of cucumber, are breaking the law.

While we are on the subject, I may as well mention that there are Regulations for the straightness of bananas as well, for instance, Commission Regulation (EC) 2257/1994. It is of interest that each of these Regulations and many others about fruit and vegetables are amendments of previous ones. In other words, this regulating development has been going on for some time and is likely to continue, not least by the proposed new ones that are supposedly going to ease up those rules that, according to the Commission’s spokespersons and their minions in our political and media life do not actually exist. Well, if they don’t exist, what is going to be amended?

There is a certain pattern here: the existence of regulations from the EU are routinely denied or not admitted to until the Commission announced that for the good of the people they are going to be amended. Then they become fodder for news to show that matters are being improved.

Yesterday’s press release from the Commission entitled rather breathlessly “The return of the curvy cucumber: Commission to allow sale of “wonky” fruit and vegetables” excited various media outlets who saw this as a spectacular victory for the consumer. Setting aside the fact that the consumer, by and large, knew nothing about all those regulations, thanks not least because of the media’s reluctance to write about it we still need to ask ourselves why it is a good thing that the Commission decides whether cucumbers should be straight or slightly curved.

I can accept the argument that supermarkets might prefer straight, easy to pack cucumbers for obvious practical reasons. That is the supermarkets’ choice and the shoppers’ choice might be to go elsewhere. This is, however, not a practical choice but a series of regulations, which, as I said above, are still continuing, to create a single market and harmonize the production of fruit and vegetables. Indeed, those rules will remain as they were for tomatoes, strawberries and various other items.
During last year's negotiations on the reform of the Common Market Organisation for fruit and vegetables, the Commission committed itself to reduce unnecessary bureaucracy by getting rid of a number of marketing standards for fruit and vegetables. Today's vote means that these standards will be repealed for 26 products: apricots, artichokes, asparagus, aubergines, avocadoes, beans, Brussels sprouts, carrots, cauliflowers, cherries, courgettes, cucumbers, cultivated mushrooms, garlic, hazelnuts in shell, headed cabbage, leeks, melons, onions, peas, plums, ribbed celery, spinach, walnuts in shell, water melons, and witloof/chicory.

The proposals would maintain specific marketing standards for 10 products which account for 75 percent of the value of EU trade: apples, citrus fruit, kiwi fruit, lettuces, peaches and nectarines, pears, strawberries, sweet peppers, table grapes and tomatoes. However, Member States could also exempt these from the standards if they were sold in the shops with an appropriate label. In practical terms, this means that an apple which does not meet the standard could still be sold in the shop, as long as it were labelled "product intended for processing" or equivalent wording.
The way the Commission will go about “reforming” its rules will be by introducing more Regulations. Some of the demands are already indicated – yes, those “wonky” fruits and vegetables can be sold but they will have to be labelled in a different way and, no doubt, stored and processed differently. I can’t wait to read the actual Regulations and what they will demand. Free market in fruit and vegetables this is not.


Anonymous said...

Of course they've got to 'relax' the rules on odd looking fruit; thanks to the imminent new rules wiping out a huge selection of our pesticides, there's going to be some very manky looking stuff coming out of the farmers' fields in the next few years!

Anonymous said...

This whole cucumber/banana thing actually looks like a doing of a technocratic bureaucracy who wanted to quantify quality - so, how do you spot a good cucumber/banana when you see them? easily, they're straight! which, unfortunately, doesn't actually say anything about their quality, but let's hope they want quantify sponginess upon pressure or some other stuff. All this is oddly reminiscent of the other technocratic bureaucracy, namely USSR.

What I'm really interested in is how much time did it take for them to write this, how much money did they spend for consultants, and whether they really, really had nothing else to do.

Anonymous said...

(re. previous comment, it should be "won't" and not "want" - I should really go to bed...)

Helen said...

The answer to your last question, Sasa, is that this is what they get paid for and very handsomely, too. Whatever they do with their time is going to be stupid, expensive and bad for us.

Hope you had a good rest. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Cucumber, so oder so. Forget about it. Do the real thing.

Vote YES to Free Europe Constitution at

Helen said...

I think I have explained before, Anonymous, that we are not in favour of a European constitution of any kind. I consider anyone else peddling that idea on the blog to be trolling and trolls are not welcome. Any further mention of it will be deleted. You have been warned.