Correction to This Article
The article incorrectly said that the European Union voted on new agricultural rules this month. The vote was in November.

E.U. Repeals Strict Rules on Form and Appearance of Fruits and Vegetables

As part of a larger effort to reduce red tape, the European Union voted this month to repeal its strict rules on the size, shape and appearance of 26 fruits and vegetables, effective in July.
As part of a larger effort to reduce red tape, the European Union voted this month to repeal its strict rules on the size, shape and appearance of 26 fruits and vegetables, effective in July. (By Mychele Daniau -- Agence France-presse Via Getty Images)
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By Karla Adam
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, December 2, 2008

LONDON, Dec. 1 -- Tim Down knows that 1 millimeter is nothing to sniff at. This past summer, the fruit and vegetable wholesaler was caught with kiwi fruit that were too small by about that much -- 0.04 of an inch.

Government inspectors told him that because his 5,000 Chilean kiwis were too scrawny, he could not sell them.

"I couldn't even give them away. It was ridiculous," said Down, a 53-year-old from Bristol, who paid $150 to dispose of the fruit.

There is good news for merchants such as Down who hawk misshapen produce. This month, the European Union voted to repeal its strict rules on the size, shape and appearance of 26 fruits and vegetables. It will still regulate 10 items, including kiwi fruit, but if one of these is now deemed too petite, or too plump, it could still be sold as long as it carries a warning label.

"This is better regulated at the level of trade than at the level of Brussels," said Michael Mann, the E.U. spokesman on agriculture.

The changes take effect in July. Until then, it will remain illegal for retailers throughout the European Union to sell a forked carrot or a cauliflower less than 4.33 inches in diameter. A Class 1 green asparagus must be green for at least 80 percent of its length. A vine shoot on a bunch of grapes must be less than 1.97 inches.

In a blog entry titled "Return of the curvy cucumber," Mariann Fischer Boel, the E.U. agriculture commissioner, wrote, "In these days of high food prices and general economic difficulties, consumers should be able to choose from the widest range of products possible." She added, "I hope very much that we will never again read about 'bonkers Brussels bureaucrats.' "

The food classifications have long been fodder for the many Euro-skeptics here who paint the bloc as a faceless creature that spends its time devising schemes to wipe out British identity. The most boisterous are the British tabloids, always ready with a gibe or an opinion. In 1994, when the European Commission, the European Union's executive arm, introduced minimum standards for the curvature of bananas, the Sun roared that European officials had "really gone bananas," while the Daily Mail, hunting for the dimensions decreed by the "old fruits of the European Commission," reported a "slip-up" when they could not find the exact angle of the bend permitted (there isn't one).

For its part, the European Commission attempts to monitor what it calls "Euromyths" and debunk "scare stories about the EU reported in the British press," according to its Web site, where it posts its rebuttals.

Mann said the changes were part of an internal campaign by the European Commission to reduce red tape by 25 percent by 2012.

Sainsbury's, a large British supermarket chain, recently joined the debate with a Halloween display of disfigured vegetables: forked carrots would be sold as "witches' fingers" and imperfect cauliflowers as "zombie brains," and so on. A spokesman for the company said the campaign was shelved when it was discovered that store managers could be prosecuted individually.

For the next seven months, E.U. countries will continue to enforce the regulations. Britain, for instance, polices its own through the Rural Payments Agency, which carries out about 25,000 inspections each year. Violations can result in a slap on the wrist, a fine or a prosecution. In 2007, there were three prosecutions.

On a recent day in Borough Market, a historic food market in southeast London, several shoppers said they would consider buying a scraggy or unusually shaped vegetable.

"I'd gladly buy a curvy cucumber," said Anna Witczak, 26, a consultant, who was clutching two poker-straight cucumbers, the only kind on offer. Knobs might make peeling tricky, but other than that, she said, "who cares about shape? . . . The only thing I care about is how healthy it is."

Not everyone is happy with the repeal of Brussels's rules. Critics say it could lead to more headaches for farmers as each retailer sets it own standards.

At the Nov. 12 meeting where it was decided to repeal several regulations, 16 of the 27 E.U. countries voted no. The motion passed because some countries have more voting power.

Simon Michel-Berger, a spokesman for Copa-Cogeca, a Europe-wide farmers lobby, said his members were against ditching the rules.

"Some supermarkets may demand even straighter bananas," he said.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company