|Montreal, January 19, 2002 / No 96
by Ralph Maddocks
In the past I have written of the strange output of the Brussels bureaucratic machine which operates the European Union. There have been regulations regarding the acceptable curvature of a banana, about permissible levels of odour in offices and other elements introduced by this exponentially growing bureaucracy. To this cornucopia of unusual regulations there can be added many others, most of them equally senseless.
For example, there are regulations governing the sizes of peaches. After
30 June 1998 it was illegal to sell size-D peaches, 2 inches to 2.2
inches in diameter, according to EC regulations 1169/93 and 3596/90. The
regulation took no account of poor harvests such as that of 1997/98. The
regulation was amended so that Size D (51 mm and over but under 56 mm in
diameter or 16 cm and over but under 17.5 cm in circumference) is not allowed
in the period from 1 July to 31 October. According to EC REGULATION 2335/99,
smaller peaches can be sold in the winter months!
The Co-op (an older form of British supermarket) declared war on Eurocrats over this, announcing that it would sell illegal undersized fruit. The Co-op says that the size requirement discriminates against organic peaches. A spokesperson said "Organic food already costs more to produce because yields are lower and labour costs are higher. If farmers can't sell these peaches because they are too small, this will drive prices up." Posters appeared in selected stores in London, Manchester and Beith in Scotland promoting undersized peaches imported from Italy with the slogan: "I am small and perfectly formed, but legally you can't buy me."
Depending upon the public's reaction, the Co-op's will risk £10,000 fines and up to six months jail, as its directors are also fighting Brussels on a second front by selling small carrots, apples and plums. Carrot sizes are a particular concern to organic growers because, according to Brussels, a carrot cannot be sold as a carrot unless its top is 20mm in diameter. Apples must be at least 65mm diameter for the larger varieties, such as Bramleys, and at least 55mm for dessert apples. Organic apples are sometime smaller and are refused by supermarkets. British plum growers are also affected. The minimum size for a Class 1 plum is 35mm, while a plum of 30mm, which could be just as good a quality, is graded Class 2.
In what astounded critics derided as a half-baked decision, European Union officials ruled last August that a new egg from Sainsbury's, a large British supermarket chain, cannot be called by its proper name – all because it has been slightly heated up to get rid of hazardous bacteria. Despite looking and tasting like eggs, and of course having been laid by hens, under existing EU regulations, (EEC) No. 1907/90, they cannot be labelled as such. A spokesman for the then Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries said that it was going to address the Commission to try and get the old legislation to accommodate the new technology.
In Commission proposals to tighten up food safety laws, that institution stated that "snails must be killed using humane methods". Frogs, on the other hand, appear to be less privileged prey, with the Commission's draft legislation simply stating that "frogs may only be killed by slaughter in an approved establishment".
As the EU matures and the 15 members expand its authority, Europeans from the North Cape to Cape Spartivento have been surprised, and at times very upset, to find its officials sticking their noses into what they can eat, how they travel, even how they incinerate their rubbish. While many Italians are strong supporters of the EU, a growing number of citizens are becoming unhappy with it. It was in Italy, that the EU's demands for strict food safety regulations – governing matters from the temperature of refrigerators and the drainage systems of farmhouses to the design of sugar bowls on café tables – prompted the most astonishment and complaining.
Many Italians worry that their valued culture of artisanal, small-scale food production is under siege from distant heathens. Agriculture Minister Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio said scornfully that "the European Union said that the humidity of fresh pasta must be 'X%,' a level which is an impossibility if it is made by artisans. [...] We stopped it, of course. But this was done by some person, not from Italy – maybe Swedish, British or Irish; they have nothing to do with pasta." Past clashes have concerned the Italians' desire to keep producing a certain kind of pecorino cheese in dank, underground pits; to continue curing Tuscan pig lard in marble vats, instead of stainless steel; and to keep baking pizzas in wood-burning ovens that contain small quantities of a carcinogenic ash. The wood ovens reach a temperature of 450°C, which is needed for the pizza to remain soft in the centre and crisp on the sides. The electric ovens prescribed by the Directive only reach 300-350°C.
Italy has won many exemptions from the EU food guidelines by declaring, in essence, that its methods of making meals are analogous to historical monuments worthy of special protection. In fact, the threatened bans have caused local sales of lard and the foul-smelling mouldy cheese to rocket, and at the same time made heroes of their producers. Under this assault, by what they consider to be unknowledgeable foreigners, traditional foods became so chic that in 1998 over 120,000 people attended a "Hall of Taste" in Turin. Sometimes, the Italian government takes the insurgents' side. On another occasion, the agriculture ministry published the nation's first formal list of traditional foods, meant to help producers who seek exemptions from EU hygiene rules. It consisted of more than 2,100 products.
Nearly half of the 65,000 or so food shop owners in Italy spent as much as $15,000 each upgrading their meat cutters, refrigerators and ovens; two-thirds have sent their employees – typically a wife, son or daughter – to attend courses on food hygiene. But, as in the case of the English abattoirs, many thousands of Italian shops closed up rather than conform. Those merchants who stayed in business, complain about Italian rules – designed specifically to meet EU hygiene standards – that require shopkeepers to record the temperature of their refrigerator every three hours; require buffalo milk mozzarella to be kept so cold that its taste is barely indistinguishable from other mozzarella; that ban the use of well water in the production of fresh ricotta cheese and discourage the use of homemade mayonnaise or the sale of unwrapped sandwiches. Similarly, Italian cheese makers had to fend off an EU-mandated requirement that cheese be cured in a clean environment, lined with plastic or ceramic tile.
According to Scanio,who championed the above listing of traditional foods, "The large organizations ... need food that is totally sterile." Scanio cited EU adoption of a nine-day expiration date for milk, which allows large manufacturers to pasteurize it at a higher temperature than do Italian food producers.
Soon all food sellers, ranging from supermarkets to hot-dog stand operators, will have to carry an official registration number under new European Union food safety regulations. A compulsory registration scheme affecting more than half a million small businesses means that no traders will be licensed to sell food unless they meet strict hygiene requirements. They will also have to keep detailed records of all the ingredients they use in their foods, including their place of origin. A new breed of "food police," overseen by veterinary and environmental health officers, will be employed to ensure that the rules are obeyed. The measures, which go beyond anything imposed on British or other food businesses before, and could cost the food industry millions, covers virtually everyone selling food, including restaurants, ice-cream booths, farm shops and tearooms.
David Byrne, the EU's health and consumer protection commissioner, was quoted as saying that the measures were designed to harmonise and simplify a mass of existing legislation in the EU. Even the smallest food businesses will have to follow hazard analysis procedures now employed by major food processing companies. Caterers and other food sellers would have to ensure full traceability of "all food and ingredients". Hot-dog sellers and similar small food traders could risk losing their licence to work if inspectors find breaches of the rules. This would include such infringements as handling money and food "without wearing protective gloves". Byrne could not answer questions about how the new regulations would affect such events as garden fetes, the Women's Institutes or other catering volunteers at village hall functions or charity events. It seems that this regulatory wave will again cause thousands of small independent businesses to simply give up as the pile of red tape gets higher and higher.
This exponentially growing mass of regulation may improve some aspects of a particular business, but inevitably they cause serious financial damage to the smaller producers and most EU countries have seen a marked decrease in the numbers of small producers of specialised food products, especially cheeses and specialty meats. One small pork producer in the UK had charges thrown out by magistrates when the Meat Hygiene Service (MHS) prosecuted him for selling three pigs that the MHS inspectors had failed to stamp with the official EU health mark.
The MHS having a statutory duty to stamp the carcasses. The producer though had paid the MHS £70,000 last year for its inspections, more than he earned in his business. This is just one example of the reign of terror imposed on the industry by the MHS and EU regulations. It is significant that more than half the owners of UK abattoirs now have a criminal conviction. Another small specialist meat company, Graig Farm at Llandrindod Wells, which sells organic and additive-free meat, handles only two carcasses a week. It was told that its veterinary inspection charges will increase from £600 a year to £17,000, quite obviously a financial burden that it cannot assume.
After deliberations lasting four years, EU internal market ministers concluded their debate by agreeing on legislation which defines honey as a "natural sweet substance" produced by Alpis mellifera bees. "Mellifera" means honey-making, so what the ministers are really saying is that honey is made by honey-making bees, an important point which apparently they thought needed clearing up. Presumably, we may expect agreements being ratified to clarify the roles of milk-producing cows, wool-providing sheep and meat-laden pigs.
The latest attempt at regulating something which has no need of regulation was an EU proposal to harmonise and standardise the names of some one hundred fishes across the European Union. The argument used was that it would make shopping easier as everyone would know fish by the same names. This would have meant, for example, that a major staple foodstuff in England, fish n'chips, would need to change its entire nomenclature. Instead of ordering cod with your mushy peas and chips you would have to ask for Gadus morhua. All other favourite fishes too would require ordering on the basis of their Latin names.
Haddock, a great favourite with the fish n'chip crowd, would become known as melanogrammus aeglefinus. Halibut would become hippoglossus hippoglossus and bass would be dicentrachus labrax. Such names sound more like unpleasant diseases than foods. Plaice, another great favourite, would become pleuronectes platessa, and the world famous Dover sole, would become known as solea solea; a rather nice sounding name which makes you sound like a gourmet.
Along with the proposed name changes, the EU proposed to outlaw any mention of where the fish was caught. Fish netted in the English Channel, the Irish Sea or the North of Scotland would be sold as being from the North East Atlantic.
Our politically correct American friends have long become used to saying "pike minnow" for "squaw fish", and "jew fish" has been replaced by "grouper", an expression which sounds vaguely promiscuous. The thought of having to learn all these new appellations so that one can order one's favourite food is slightly off-putting, and the various associations of British Fish Fryers protested vehemently about this to the EU, with the result that they were granted an 11th hour reprieve. Whether the bureaucrats are regrouping for another attempt is not known, but perhaps they will take more time to reflect upon the idiocy of this idea of theirs.
This resurrecting of the Latin names of fishes falls in neatly with the today's PC movement and one might see in all this evidence that the bureaucrats may have in mind the imposition of the ancient tongue of the Roman Empire to replace the babble of "official" languages presently in use. We have learned, in addition to the above, all about Corpus Juris for example and now there comes yet another Latin tag to cover the creation of "European Companies''. From 2004, companies operating in more than one member state will have the option of setting up as a European Company and operating throughout the EU with one set of rules and a unified management system, rather than having to operate under the national laws and systems of each member state where they have subsidiaries.
They will be known as, wait for it, ... Societas Europeae (SE). These European companies will be established by two pieces of legislation which were formally adopted last October by the EU's Council of Ministers. A regulation will establish the company law rules in each member state, while a Directive will specify worker involvement. An SE may be set up in one of four ways: by merging two or more existing PLC's from at least two member states; by the formation of a holding company promoted by two or more public or private limited companies from at least two member states; by the formation of a subsidiary of companies from at least two member states; by the transformation of a PLC which has had a subsidiary in another member state for at least two years. Under the Directive, the creation of a SE will require negotiations on the involvement of employees with a body representing all employees of the companies concerned. If an agreement cannot be negotiated, a set of standard principles laid down by an annexe of the Directive will apply.
Their latest sphincter shrivelling exercise in this palindromic year, as reported in the first edition of The Economist, was that Brussels' regulatory warriors were to spend January 10th trying to decide how many lumps are allowed in a sauce before it can be considered a vegetable. The underlying reason for this is that the tariff on imported sauce is just 20% but the tariff on an imported vegetable is 288%. The mainly protectionist vegetable producers of southern Europe are afraid that vegetables may sneak into Europe disguised as tinned sauces, arguing that if a sauce contains more than 20% chunks of vegetable or fruit it should be considered to be a vegetable. One really cannot make this kind of thing up.
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