Brussels sprouts relaxed rules for fruits and vegetables

Changes will allow twisted, misshapen, and oddly colored produce on Europe's tables.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    The European Union recently relaxed rules governing the shape, size, and color of fruits and vegetables, such as the produce shown here at recent farmer's market in the French city of Arras.
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Oddly shaped asparagus, crooked cucumbers, and gnarly carrots will no longer be banned from grocers' shelves in the European Union, following a relaxation last week of EU standards governing the appearance of fruits and vegetables.

Although at least one Italian farmers' union is warning consumers to beware of a coming flood of low-quality produce, bureaucrats in Brussels say lifting the ban on less-than-perfect farm products is a sensible response to a growing global recession. Some retail groups say prices on fruits and vegetables should drop when the change is implemented next July.

Antonella Cima, a homemaker from Milan, says she never "felt threatened" by "lumpy carrots." Dropping the rules, she says, is a matter of common sense.

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"I couldn't care less about the shape of vegetables I cook," Ms. Cima says.

The 300 pages of marketing standards governed everything from the proper weight of zucchinis to the curvature allowed in cucumbers. The rules date back 20 years and were meant to protect European families from low-quality food. But they ended up as a poster child for critics of EU bureaucracy, including Edoardo Camurri, a columnist for Italy's conservative daily newspaper, Il Foglio.

"I cannot believe that the European Union has nothing better to do than debate the Platonic ideal of what is a cucumber or potato," he says. "It's just plain pathological bureaucracy."

The proper weight of zucchinis, for instance, was given eight pages of space in the old rules: None could be heavier than 450 grams, or about a pound, and the vegetable's stalk – in official speak, its peduncle – mustn't exceed 3 centimeters, or about an inch. The rules did little to boost safety, critics say, mocking the notion that the proper curvature of a cucumber should be codified by pages of Pan-European laws.

Farmers in sun-challenged Britain and other growers across northern Europe have protested for years against the regulations, claiming the standards force them to waste more than 20 percent of their crops.

Although the European Commission agreed last week to relax the standards for 26 types of fruits and vegetables – lovers of mammoth, long-peduncled zucchini rejoice! – the rules still govern the shapes and sizes of 10 of the most popular varieties of produce, including apples, lettuce, strawberries, tomatoes, and peppers. Items not meeting the standards will be allowed to be sold, though, so long as they bear the warning, "product not intended for processing."

The decision to relax most of the rules drew strong criticism from farmers in Spain and Italy, who, with help from the Mediterranean sun, pride themselves on the production of the continent's most geometrically perfect fruits and vegetables. The farmers fear the change opens the door to competition from less scrupulous growers outside Europe, namely places where labor is cheap.

"Now that the homogeneity of products is no longer guaranteed, this may lead to the selling of waste products at higher prices," warns Pietro Caggiano, an official from Coldiretti, a farmers' union in Italy. He admits that EU regulation "may have been excessive," but says the lack of standardization will make it harder for consumers to judge the quality of a cuke from its cover.

Nonetheless, one of Italy's most famous crops – tomatoes – will remain largely protected by the old standards: Consumers will still be guaranteed that their tomatoes will not exceed 102 millimeters (4 inches) in diameter. Those daring to buy larger tomatoes will be duly warned.

Mr. Camurri, the columnist, shakes his head at the idea: "It is hard to believe that so many vegetables are still discriminated against."

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