Europe Debates Perfection It Demands of Its Produce

By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 8, 2008

PARIS -- When is an onion more than an onion, or less? How can consumers choose between a carrot and a mere pretender? That bendy cucumber, those wannabe peaches -- do they have the firmness of character to be on the shelf?

Urgent and vital questions all, especially for lawmakers in the European Union, which has 34 regulations on marketing standards -- from the allegedly essential to the patently absurd -- for fruits and vegetables.

Consider the Class I cucumber, which must be "practically straight (maximum height of the arc: 10 mm per 10 cm of the length of cucumber)." Translation: A six-inch cucumber cannot bend more than six-tenths of an inch. Following 16 pages of regulations on apples (Class I must be at least 60mm, or 2 1/3 inches, in diameter) come 19 pages of amendments outlining the approved colors for more than 250 kinds.

As for peaches, "to reach a satisfactory degree of ripeness . . . the refractometrix index of the flesh, measured at the middle point of the fruit pulp at the equatorial section must be greater than or equal to 8° Brix."

Had enough? So has the European Commission's agriculture commissioner, Mariann Fischer Boel of Denmark. She proposes scrapping all but 10 of the regulations, arguing that they are needlessly cumbersome and bureaucratic, and that they lead to people throwing away perfectly edible fruits and vegetables for cosmetic reasons at a time when the world is suffering food shortages and rapid price increases. She hopes representatives from the 27-nation bloc will vote to streamline the regulations at a meeting this month.

"We don't need 34 regulations to decide how round an artichoke should be or how thin a cucumber can be," said Boel's spokesman, Michael Mann, noting that such rules give the E.U. its reputation as an out-of-control bureaucracy. "A bent cucumber is as good as a straight one," he declared. "Let the shopper decide."

But Boel has a fight on her hands, European officials say, because as many as 19 E.U. countries apparently oppose the simplification scheme. A note to the European Commission from the Spanish and Italian delegations, backed by France and Hungary, argued that "marketing standards play an important role in facilitating and ensuring transparency in market operations while protecting customers at the same time."

The regulations are particularly ridiculed in Britain, where, according to a recent article in the Independent newspaper, "the bent cucumber -- beside its maligned compatriot, the straight banana -- has been wielded by Eurosceptics eager to clobber the European Union." London's Daily Mail gushed that "bendy cucumbers, nobbly strawberries and apples the wrong shade of red are to make a comeback in our supermarkets."

The E.U.'s regulations set three quality standards (Extra, Class I and Class II) that require vendors to carefully label their products. That enables them to charge higher prices for better-looking and, according to Gerard Ioli, owner of an upscale produce stand a few blocks from the Eiffel Tower, better-tasting fruits and vegetables.

"It's a choice for the customer," Ioli said. "He has enough information on the label to make a decision about what he wants to buy. It's real competition."

In Ioli's store, as in many French markets, customers are not allowed to touch the produce, so there is no squeezing of avocados, thumping of watermelons or smelling of cantaloupes. Ioli palmed two identical-looking cherry tomatoes -- one classified Extra, the other Class I -- and offered a taste test to prove that all tomatoes are not created equal. Sure enough, the Extra was sweeter, juicier, pulpier and all around superior.

"My clients know what they are buying, and they know that if it's labeled 'Extra,' it tastes better and costs more, and they will buy it," he said.

David Parsons, 39, a telecommunications consultant from Boston, has become something of a veggie regulation evangelist in the 10 years he has lived in France. "People will pay for the value of what they see and what they taste," he said while browsing at Ioli's stand. ". . . The French want fruit to be ripened on the vine to get the most vitamins."

But for others, the efforts to regulate produce have simply gone too far.

Let's consider the onion for a moment, and the E.U.'s "Regulation (EEC) No 2213/83 of 28 July 1983 laying down quality standards for onions and witloof chicory." You would think that the 10 pages of standards and the 19 amendments and corrections made in the 25 years since the regulation's enactment would leave little doubt about the required size, shape and color of an onion, and the amount of peeling, bruising, staining, cracking, root tufting and sprouting that is permissible. You would be wrong.

In January 2007, the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture issued a report in which it took 29 pages to explain "quality standards for onions," complete with 43 photographs.

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