On this day, one year ago, the European Union ended its ban on ugly vegetables. “EU relents and lets a banana be a banana,” proclaimed the New York Times, “EU bends the rules on cucumbers,” punned the Guardian, while the Daily Mail relished the opportunity to run with, “Proof Brussels has been sprouting lies about wonky veg for years.”
Apart from providing the opportunity to run poor puns and pictures of hideous produce (irresistible, I can confirm), the EU ruling was actually an important step towards reducing food waste. The Daily Telegraph claimed that before the standards were repealed, an estimated twenty percent of the British harvest had to be thrown away, which, in turn, served to increase the price of the more attractive specimens by up to forty percent. Fruit and vegetables that did not meet EU requirements couldn’t even legally be given away, which was particularly frustrating for soup kitchens and low-income families.
However, the old standards do make fascinating reading: for example, cucumbers were not allowed to bend at a gradient of more than 1/10, and forked carrots were automatically discarded. Meanwhile, an onion could “only be sold if two thirds is covered in skin,” the white part of the leek had to “represent at least one-third of the total length or half the sheathed part,” and cauliflowers “less than 11cm in diameter” were also banned.
Perhaps the most legendary EU standard concerns the bend of a banana, which was circumscribed with awe-inspiring precision: “The thickness of a transverse section of the fruit between the lateral faces and the middle, perpendicular to the longitudinal axis, must be at a minimum of 27mm.”
IMAGES: Prize-winning vegetables on display at the 2009 Royal National Agricultural show in Brisbane, Australia (known locally as the EKKA, although I have no idea why). Photos by the author.
Issues of waste aside, there is a quixotic charm to the project of defining the range of permissible deviation from the ur-banana. I can’t help but wonder whether there is small shelf, somewhere in an anonymous building in Brussels, that holds carefully crafted papier-mâché reference models of the perfect parsnip, tomato, and kiwi. Perhaps the Commissioners moonlight as agricultural show judges, marking down homegrown cabbages for having more than three wrapper leaves, and disqualifying asparagus whose tips are less than 25mm long.