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Rule change bears fruit

Mark Mardell | 14:30 UK time, Wednesday, 12 November 2008

"I eat first with my eyes," a woman tells me in a Brussels supermarket. "I am not going to eat deformed potatoes. I am sorry, I may be wrong but that's the way it is."

She is unusual, or at least unusually frank, for most of the shoppers tell me what you expect to hear these days, that it is flavour and nutrition, not appearance, that are important. Vegetables at a London market (file pic)"

I am talking to them in a supermarket with not a deformed potato in sight. Well, they wouldn't be on sale, for they are banned under a set of European Union rules that have invited more ridicule than just about anything else. They set out the 20mm minimum diameter of the Brussels sprout and the exact permitted curvature of the cucumber.

These are now being scrapped. The rules covering 26 vegetables are going. The Commission agriculture spokesman Michael Mann told me: "We just don't think this should be regulated at European Union level. We are aware we get a lot of stick for this and we agree it shouldn't really be done by us, much better if the trade does it itself. We are living in an area of high food prices it makes no sense whatsoever that perfectly good fruit and vegetables are being thrown away because they don't meet a standard. In future you'll be able to sell any shape of apple you want in a supermarket."

Mind you, some rules remain in place for the 10 biggest sellers, including apples, tomatoes, grapes and lemons. In those cases countries can decide to allow wonky examples of these vegetables to be sold with a special label. So a supermarket may have a basket of wrinkly, less attractive apples for a more attractive price.

But I wonder if they will. These sorts of rules designed to enforce a uniform common market aren't exactly the EU's thing any more, perhaps because all the regulations were introduced ages ago. But whenever I do search for disgruntled manufacturers or exporters unhappy about a planned EU directive standardising their product, I often find that the majority are happy that there are Europe-wide rules, so they don't have to have legal teams and paperwork to meet 27 different national standards.

I've just heard that 16 countries - mainly the big fruit and veg producers - voted against today's rule change. Because of the system of qualified majority voting they didn't get their way, but it does go to prove the point that what Brits are conditioned to think of as the product of "barmy Brussels bureaucrats" is often - perhaps always - the will of the nation states.


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