The Perfect Vegetable: Beauty Is Only Skin-Deep
Nov 26, 2008
“Better that a girl has beauty than brains because boys see better than they think,” said an anonymous wit.
That may have been the logic behind the European Union’s regulations on the appearance of fruits and vegetables, without regard to their safety or taste.
Thankfully, the EU is now on track to slice and dice a bunch of these rotten rules. Earlier this month, it began a process to eliminate a set of directives on the looks of 26 fruits and vegetables. About a hundred pages of guidelines are now headed for the chopping block.
“This marks the new dawn for the curvy cucumber and the knobbly carrot,” said EU Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel. “We simply don’t need to regulate this. In these days of high food prices and general economic difficulties, consumers should be able to choose from the widest range of products possible.”
Amen to that. We expect governments to make sure our food is healthy. We certainly don’t need bureaucrats to micromanage what the avocados and watermelons should look like. Farmers, grocers, and consumers can decide what they want to buy and sell on their own, through the normal workings of the marketplace.
Most people expect their fruits and vegetables to come in certain shapes and sizes. Yet these aesthetics can result in a lot of waste. You’d be surprised how much food doesn’t make it to your grocery store’s produce section simply because it doesn’t look right.
The EU regulations, however, are especially onerous. “An estimated 20 percent of farm produce,” says the Times of London, is “rejected for not meeting EU standards.”
For years, the EU has dictated that asparagus must be green for 80 percent of its length. Cucumbers cannot bend more than 10 mm per 10 cm. Cauliflower must be at least 11 cm in diameter.
These foods may be perfectly safe to eat, but the EU outlawed them because they aren’t ‘beautiful’ in the eyes of beholding bureaucrats.
From my own experience in the produce business, the amount of pure waste often approaches 30-35% on the basis of appearance alone. We’re talking tons of perfectly good, edible nutrition wasted every day just in New Jersey.
How absurd is this system? A grocery store in Britain recently had planned to sell “zombie brain” cauliflower and “witches’ fingers” carrots for Halloween, until managers realized that their fun and creative idea was against the law.
By next summer, Brussels will get rid of its rules of attraction not only for Brussels sprouts, but also for apricots, artichokes, asparagus, aubergines, avocados, beans, carrots, cauliflowers, cherries, chicory, courgettes, cucumbers, cultivated mushrooms, garlic, hazelnuts in shells, headed cabbage, leeks, melons, onions, peas, plums, ribbed celery, spinach, walnuts in shells, and watermelons.
That’s a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, regulations will remain in place for apples, citrus, kiwis, lettuces, nectarines, peaches, pears, strawberries, sweet peppers, table grapes, and tomatoes.
When it comes to deregulation, however, the perfect should not become the enemy of the good. You take what you can get. The impulse of every bureaucracy is to create rules rather than repeal them--and the EU deserves hearty congratulations for bucking a bad trend, at least in this instance. For now, that’s good enough.
I’m hopeful the EU will apply a similar dose of common sense to biotechnology. Just as food regulators shouldn’t break out their measuring tapes and fuss over the lengths and widths of carrots, they don’t need to support an anti-scientific practice of banning genetically modified crops.
People in the Americas and around the world consume biotech food every day, yet some European opinion-makers still condemn it as “Frankenfood.” In truth, genetically enhanced corn and soybeans and the products derived from them are just as safe to eat as “zombie brain” cauliflower and “witches’ fingers” carrots. Plus they look prettier and probably taste better, too.
Food prices are increasing everywhere. Governments are attempting to take steps to rein them in. That should be accomplished through sound public policies. Agricultural trade should be encouraged, not restricted. They should invest in the promise of biotechnology rather than fear it. And they definitely should weed out cumbersome policies that restrict consumer choice without improving public health.
To borrow a phrase: Beauty is only skin deep, but an ugly regulation goes clear to the bone.
John Rigolizzo, Jr. is a fifth generation farmer, raising fresh vegetables and field corn in southern New Jersey. The family farm manages both road side retail and wholesale markets. John is a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrrade.org