Did you know that it is illegal to sell curvy cucumbers in Europe? The European Union has long been accused of pedantic bureaucracy when it comes to farming and even the sale of fruit and vegetables has been restricted by regulations specifying the exact ranges of size, shape and skin blemishes that are acceptable for sale. However, last week all that changed with 26 out of 36 types of fruit and vegetables to have regulations repealed from July.
Grocery stores have often been blamed for the standardization of grocery produce because of the desire to make them look perfect and fit into packaging. It is certainly true that there are only a few varieties of vegetables available for sale compared to the rich heritage of seeds available. Yet, even the supermarkets, have found the EU regulations ridiculous. Sainsbury’s, one of the UK’s main supermarket chains, recently launched a ‘Save our Ugly Fruit and Veg’ campaign saying that the current system was ‘bonkers’. Managers in their stores were forced to withdraw odd shaped vegetables being sold as Halloween items: ‘witches fingers’ carrots and ‘zombie brains’ cauliflowers never made it to the shelves despite the great novelty factor for children.
Of course gardeners are well used to odd-shaped vegetables. As well as providing an endless supply of amusing pictures for the letters pages in magazines, when you have gone to the trouble of growing your own produce you are unlikely to scrap it because of non-standard shape or size. Yet, amazingly, that is exactly what farmers in the EU have had to do for the past two decades. Although misshapen vegetables could be sold on for ‘processing’ as ingredients for other foods, the lower market price of such produce meant that it has been more commonly left to rot in the field. Estimates vary but it seems that 20% of the British harvests of vegetables such as onions are regularly wasted because they fail to meet the mark.
It is hard to imagine such stringent regulations being applied anywhere else in the world. America would never impose such tight regulation and in many other countries the luxury of rejecting food is simply not an option. Despite this, most European countries voted to keep the regulations but luckily not enough to stop the change being adopted. Some large agricultural producers such as France argued that the price paid to farmers would drop if more non-standard crops flooded the market, although this seems to completely ignore the huge hike in food prices over the past 12 months. Surely even economists can see that less waste is good news for the public in the current economic climate.
Thankfully gardeners have never been subject to these regulations since they only apply to shops and markets. We are far more likely to grow for taste and interest than for uniform shape. However, the European Union has even managed to limit our choice by setting standards for the regulation of seeds requiring costly registration. As a result many varieties have been dropped by seed companies keen to keep costs down and are now no longer legally saleable. This has resulted in schemes such as Garden Organic’s Heritage Seed Library, which is a subscription service (hence avoiding the direct sale of the seeds) maintaining about 800 open-pollinated varieties of European vegetables which they send out to members each year.
I for one am glad to see that the ‘factory’ mentality of perfectly shaped food is beginning to be challenged. Why it existed in the first place still baffles me, when fruit and vegetables are one of our most powerful connections to the diversity and wonder of nature. Now at least the public can have the choice to access a wider variety of quality produce, irrespective of whether it looks like the perfect blueprint on some bureaucrat’s desk. Once people get used to the natural healthy variety of crops let us hope it will open the way for more of them to discover the delights of growing their own and reconnect with the source of healthy food.