Frustration and mirth as the EU almost bans olive oil bottles from its restaurants

With much of Europe mired in recession and high unemployment the European Union turned its attention to issue of olive oil fraud.

Mal Langsdon/Reuters/File
People look at the Eiffel Tower, lit in the blue and yellow colors of the European Union flag in Paris in this July 2008 file photo. With much of Europe mired in recession and high unemployment the European Union almost bans olive oil bottles from its restaurants.

“Olive oil bottles – they are removing them from the tables at restaurants!”

The statement, from my Spanish husband, was not one of fact but of disbelief and disdain. “They” referred to the European Union.

I was busy typing away on another story and only half paying attention, but my first thought was that this was some kind of austerity measure by restaurateurs. Then I recalled a plan in Mexico – to take salt shakers off of tables to counter diabetes – and I thought it could be a health-driven measure (though yes, I know olive oil is one of the good fats).

But then he explained and got my full attention: “It’s to reduce fraud.” The EU was mandating that the restaurants of its 27 member countries use sealable olive oil jars to prevent refilling with subpar product, replacing the glass bottles ubiquitous in Spain or the dipping bowls of Italy.

My husband has many friends who are starting to lose their jobs and a few have already run out of unemployment benefits. His nieces and nephews are just starting college and looking at a job market with 50 percent youth unemployment. “Aren’t there big enough problems to deal with?” he asked, exasperated.

The EU apparently agrees with him, or buckled under the pressure of others who were similarly dismayed by the plan. On Thursday, the press corps in Brussels reported that the European Commission scrapped the measure, which was supposed to go into effect on Jan. 1.

Some memorable quotes emerged from the brouhaha. One of my favorites: the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung called it "weirdest decision since the legendary curvy cucumber regulation," a reference to EU rules, no longer in existence, controlling the shape of fruits and vegetables that could be sold in supermarkets.

According to the New York Times, Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands called it “too bizarre for words.”

And Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain got yet another chance to chastise the EU's heavy-handedness, calling the rules “exactly the sort of area that the European Union needs to get right out of, in my view.”

The move, the EU was at pains to point out, was to protect consumers, both in terms of hygiene and ensuring that consumers get what they pay for. And representatives from 15 of 27 countries supported the measure, including major olive producers like Italy and Spain.

Instead, they were mocked across Twitter.  “EU once more shows its razor-sharp focus on the big picture with, er, uh, ban on olive oil jug,” read one feed. “EU protects citizens from dangers of unregulated olive oil bottles,” read another.

In a very interesting blog at Open Europe you’ll learn everything about ancient practices to reduce fraud in the olive oil industry. You’ll also read that – despite all the mockery – there might be a positive story here.

“The Commission's climb down shows that a rethink of silly ideas and proposals in Brussels is possible,” the writer says. “The Commission could've stuck to its guns and ignored the complaints - after all, there were some actors in favor of this (farming lobby, some member states etc.) - but reason was allowed to prevail.”

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