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Page last updated at 15:44 GMT, Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Will we eat wonky fruit and veg?

Irregular (Sainsbury's) and regular carrots
One of these sets of carrots is illegal to sell

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

Regulations that stop strange-shaped fruit and vegetables being sold are being changed by the European Union. But are we willing to eat wonky veg?

When you see a carrot with two prongs, a knobbly potato or a blemished strawberry, does your stomach turn? Are you transported back to memories of That's Life by the slightest morphological oddity in anything you eat?

Potato (picture courtesy of Graham Turner)
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If so, you are not going to like what the European Commission (EU) is now doing. "Marketing standards" for 26 vegetables are being repealed.

If there has been one truly effective stick to beat the EU with over the years, it has been the bizarre and Byzantine reams of regulation it is accused of promulgating.

The classic anti-EU story is that "faceless eurocrats" were banning the curved cucumber. It was all the more powerful for having a solid basis in truth. Namely, Commission Regulation (EEC) No 1677/88 of 15 June 1988.

Blemishes and discolourations

Class I cucumbers must "be reasonably well shaped and practically straight (maximum height of the arc: 10 mm per 10 cm of the length of cucumber)". Class II "slightly crooked cucumbers may have a maximum height of the arc of 20 mm per 10 cm of length of the cucumber".

These are allowed to have some blemishes and discolourations. Any cucumber more crooked must be packed separately and must be otherwise cosmetically perfect.

Pink Fir Apple (picture courtesy of British Potato Council)
This potato is said to be one of the tastiest, but would you eat it?

So if a cucumber is crooked and has a blemish on it, it cannot be sold in a shop or market. It is allowed to go for processing, but often the cost of transport to a manufacturer is prohibitive and the produce is simply allowed to rot.

Carrots are in the same boat. Commission Regulation (EC) No 730/1999 of 7 April 1999 says they must be "not forked, free from secondary roots".

Commission Regulation (EC) No 85/2004 of 15 January 2004, any apple under 50mm in diameter or 70g in weight cannot be sold.

Every year tonnes of perfectly-edible produce across the EU is thrown away so that when you walk into the supermarket all you see is rank after serried rank of cosmetically perfect fruit and vegetables.

The first regulations were introduced across the EU in the 1980s and have been amended and supplemented since.

Amusing carrots

Michael Mann, the European Commission's Agriculture spokesman, notes that when the rules on fruit and vegetable standards were brought in 20 years ago the eurocrats were not inventing a new category of regulation, but merely seeking to standardise already existing laws across Europe.

And of course, member states have been responsible for deciding how to police and punish the fruit laws.

Rules for 26 fruit and vegetable scrapped
Rules for 10 retained
But sub-rule produce can be sold in shops if labelled as "for processing" or similar formulation
Scrapped 26 are: Apricots, artichokes, asparagus, aubergines, avocadoes, beans, brussels sprouts, cauliflowers, cherries, courgettes, cucumbers, cultivated mushrooms, garlic, hazelnuts in shell, headed cabbage, leeks, melons, onions, peas, plums, ribbed celery, spinach, walnuts in shell, watermelons, witloof chicory
10 retained are: Apples, citrus fruit, kiwi fruit, lettuces and endives, peaches and nectarines, pears, strawberries, sweet peppers, table grapes, tomatoes

"We wouldn't encourage people to come down too heavily on people selling amusing carrots," says Mr Mann.

In the UK, enforcement is administered by the Rural Payments Agency. They deal with breaches of the marketing standards mainly by educating and warning the offending traders and suppliers, but there are "four or five" prosecutions a year.

Rotten produce for sale may be more likely to result in action than oddities of shape, but it remains the case that both are against the law.

Only in June, a trader in Bristol was stopped by the RPA from selling 520 kiwi fruit that were slightly too small.

In recent years, even supermarkets have been kicking against the regulations. Waitrose launched an "ugly" range of Class II produce for jam-making and cooking in 2006.

More recently Sainsbury's withdrew a promotion of discount Halloween-themed vegetables, saying they had realised managers could get a criminal record for selling non-standard produce. The supermarket also launched a campaign to "Save our Ugly Fruit and Veg". It estimated that, to take one example, 20% of British onion production is wasted because it fails to meet the standards. They lobbied EU Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel over the issue.

But Ms Boel already decided some time ago that the marketing standards had to be radically changed. By next summer, once member states have had time to put the changes into effect, wonky veg will be on supermarket shelves.

That is not to say, of course, that consumers will be rushing to buy this imperfect produce.

A look at vegetable rules and regulations

Supermarkets are frequently blamed for pushing standardisation. Varieties are chosen for their durability or their appearance, and if size and shape are uniform, packaging is easier to make.

"People have been brainwashed into believing everything has to be a uniform size," says Geoff Stokes, secretary of the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners.

"It has always struck me as more to do with the supermarkets wanting to package things easier, if everything is the same shape and the same size,"

But we've had years of cosmetically perfect vegetables. And the supermarkets which have chosen to sell only the most aesthetically pleasing items might argue they were only serving the desires of their customers.

And how many people always pick the cheaper, less cosmetically pleasing, Class II vegetables when they're out shopping?

Avoiding waste

If there's anything that can break our conditioning for liking regular-shaped vegetables, it's the current economic climate and the increasing awareness of the environmental cost of food production.

"The idea is to avoid waste," says Mr Mann. "Economic times are hard. Why shouldn't people be allowed to go into supermarkets and get apples that are smaller and cheaper?"

The looming recession could well spark a market for misshapes when the law changes next summer, says Michael Barker, fresh foods correspondent of the Grocer magazine.

"When people are short of money the last thing we want to be doing is to be restricting the amount of fruit and vegetables we can sell. It may be stuff with blemishes, slightly misshapen, not that there's anything wrong with it.

"There is all sorts of anecdotal evidence that people are really much more interested in the authenticity and heritage at the moment."

Cookery shows have started paving the way for wonky veg, with many emphasising taste over presentation, realness over blandness and variety over conformity.

The regulations that are being repealed say nothing about taste. But once prejudices are set to one side, that is probably what most people want from their produce, however knobbly.

Below is a selection of your comments.

I think its about time this stupid rule is abandoned. I grow my own veg, and grew some Pink Fir Apple spuds, which are all lumpy and knobbly (and take a little more time and trouble to prepare as, horror of horrors, they are all dirty!), but they were really tasty, because they were grown in real dirty dirt, not some worn out over-farmed sandy soil, and then pumped full of chemical fertilizers and tonnes of water. Some of my carrots 'forked', but we still ate them. In no way was the quality impaired. Every time I go into Tesco its like looking at a Village Hall annual vegetable show. Everything is perfect. And considering how much fertilizer the farmers are putting on their fields, which washes into the rivers as Nitrates and Phosphates (an environmental nightmare), for them to then turn round and dump perfectly good food, is absolutely scandalous. I think people have forgotten how hard it was even 50 years ago, when wonky veg was quite often the norm, and we as a people wasted far less than we do now.
Kev Girling, Cotton, Suffolk

I think people who don't eat something just because it "looks a bit different" are pathetic. So long as it doesn't glare at me or say "hello", I'll happily eat just about anything, be it wonky, discoloured or "out of date"...setting standards is just purely wasteful.
Laura Harman, Sheffield

To a Canadian used to shopping at a local farmers' market, this is all extremely silly. If it's edible and not a health risk, what's wrong with eating it? A little variety in texture, shape or colour just makes it more interesting on your plate. If it's trickier to ship, that's up to whoever's paying for the shipping; I can't see why regulation is needed.
Kevin, Kitchener, Ontario, Canada

Yes, lets have all wonky fruit and veg on sale. It is stupid to only sell fruit and veg that looks perfect. I am only interested in quality and price and not the shape.
Marina McGuire, West Drayton, Middlesex, England

This obsession with the shape of vegetables has led to a paucity of choice and a complete lack of taste in those vegetables that are available. I find it difficult to blame the EU, however, as there is never a problem finding decent food in France and Spain. Vegetables are all shapes and sizes, and often more damaged than in the UK. Their taste, however, is far superior. These days, I am more likely to bring home meat, cheese, fruit and veg from my holiday than booze. Luckily we have a camper and can stock up.
Helen, Bournemouth, England

I'm so glad this ban has been lifted. I really don't like to see food wasted. It's curious that, although this is an EU ruling, I've noticed whenever I'm in Spanish supermarkets (especially in rural areas), the fruit and veg is all sorts of weird and wonderful shapes and sizes, which I have always liked (and they taste better).
Sue Uttley, Sheffield

Food is food and is going to end up in the same place. As we live on a budget we don't really care about shape more the price/kg. But it's nice to hear we'll be able to buy amusingly shaped vegetables. Overall a good thing if it reduces food wastage even before the end consumer has had a chance to chose.
Duncan Smallman, Edinburgh

This is discrimination. Fruit and vegetables have feelings too! You can't judge them on the way they look or the way their shaped. Equal rights for food!!
Keiko, Japan

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