Oddly Enough

EU states oppose plan to end "bent cucumber" rule

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Bent courgettes and cucumbers, misshapen garlic, warped leeks and onions? Who sets the rules?

A farmer carries cucumbers from her field to sell in the markets in Allahabad April 7, 2007. Bent courgettes and cucumbers, misshapen garlic, warped leeks and onions? Who sets the rules? REUTERS/Jitendra Prakash

One of the most popular jibes about EU over-regulation, where zealous Brussels bureaucrats are portrayed as wanting to set permitted sizes, lengths -- and “bendiness” -- for household fruit and vegetables, has come back to haunt the European Union.

But this time, Brussels wants to cut the red tape and get rid of what it calls “unnecessary marketing standards”.

The trouble is, several EU governments don’t like the idea.

As part of last year’s reform of fruit and vegetable rules, EU farm ministers signed up to a deal to simplify much of tortuous policy and subsidy regulations. But Europe’s farm chief got a shock when she tried to put some of that into practice.

Her idea was to scrap 26 out of 36 marketing standards that apply to a wide range of products such as beans, cauliflower, melons, spinach and watermelon. The 10 remaining items account for 75 percent of the EU’s cross-border trade in this area.

When national EU experts saw what was being planned, a large majority of them -- notably those France, Germany, Hungary, Italy and Spain -- objected. Only eight countries approved.

“The need for marketing standards has diminished because supermarkets have imposed their own standards,” a diplomat said.

“But some member states like marketing standards, that governments, not businesses, set the standards against the misshapen apple or the over-bent banana,” he said.

Despite the setback, EU Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel plans to press ahead. Privately, officials say she is surprised by the strong resistance, especially at a time of soaring food prices and worries about food security.

Part of her idea is to let misshapen fruits be sold in shops with a special label indicating for use in cooking which, the Commission says, makes far more sense than throwing them away.

“A lot of the member states did not like it. But the commissioner wants to push this idea so in July there will be a legal proposal,” one official said.

But it looks as if Fischer Boel might draw some support, at least, from various quarters in the European Parliament.

“Finally, the European Commission comes up with a sensible idea aimed at getting rid of frankly silly rules which are all about the shape and not the quality of the product,” the parliament’s agriculture committee chairman, Neil Parish, said.

“Quite why the French, Spanish, Germans and Italians want to continue the unjustified ban on bendy cucumbers is beyond me.”

editing by Christopher Johnson