Thursday, 26 June 2008

About the size of an average kiwi

When I left home this morning I certainly didn't expect to be doing a TV interview about EU regulations dictating the minimum permissable size of a kiwi fruit. But that's what this job is like. We're expected to be able to talk in an informed - or at least an opinionated - way about all manner of subjects at the drop of a hat.

So here's the story - a local fruit and veg wholesaler has been hauled up for importing 520 kiwis from Chile which were 4g below the required weight and so must not be sold or even given away. I thought at first this must be another one of those euro-myths so beloved of the tabloid press; where I used to work, at Britain in Europe, we published a whole pamplet's worth of them, called Straight Bananas (here's an extract). But it seems to be true, as the Rural Payments Agency have confirmed the story, saying that the consignment failed to meet EU grading rules.

A quick bit of research into these rules revealed that "to facilitate trade and increase the profitability of production, products are graded and subject to standards." Compliance checks are carried out at the marketing, rather than the production and packaging stage. In other words, the kiwis are flown halfway round the world before inspectors come in and object to their very existence.

As you might expect from my previous line of work, I'm probably more appreciative than most of the positive benefits of EU membership, including some of the rules relating to food production (e.g. animal welfare and food safety standards). But this is pretty ridiculous. Surely it's up to the customer to decide whether or not they want to buy a smaller than average kiwi fruit? (It's not beyond the realm of possibility that they might actually want a smaller one). And given rising food prices and the growing awareness of just how much food we waste every day in the developed world, it seems outrageous that people are employed to order grocers to throw away perfectly good food.

So I will be collaring Gareth Thomas the next chance I get. (He divides his time between being the DFID minister responsible for trade, and the DBERR minister for trade and consumer affairs, so I figure he must be the man to save small kiwis). According to news reports the European Commission said earlier this month it wanted to relax the rules which prevent misshapen or underweight fruit and veg being sold. And my research into grading rules said that special measures can be taken in the event of shortages or exceptional surpluses. So there's all to play for - victory can be ours!

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