The Fruit Standard

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.”

Ugly Onion
Ugly parsnip
Ugly tomato

IMAGE: Highly-placed entrants in the “Ugliest Vegetable In Britain” competition, run by the National Trust in 2006. The parsnip (centre) was the overall winner.

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 The Daily Telegraph claimed that before the standards were repealed, an estimated twenty percent of the British harvest had to be thrown away, which, in turn, served to increase the price of the more attractive specimens by up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.”

EKKA prize homegrown
EKKA prizes

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.

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  1. Andrew
    | Permalink

    Does anyone know whatever was the rationale for this is the first place? It just seems absolutely bananas!

    Who dreamt it up and why would any “group of Euro-MPs try to bring back uniform standardisation parameters, forbidding the sale of straight bananas and curly cucumbers among other items?” [reported by the BBC]?

  2. Thanks, Rachel (?)
    You’re totally right – tracing the idealistic original intentions behind the regulations, and their subsequent subversion, is probably the most fascinating part. Your research project sounds great – I’d be happy to hear more details if you want to share (see Contact page for my email). It reminds me a little of the law in L.A. that says that buildings that contain hazardous materials (e.g. lead) have to be labeled. The intention was to protect consumers, but the result was ridiculous: the owners of any building that was built before a certain date (whenever lead paints and asbestos were banned) can’t guarantee that it doesn’t have hazardous materials lurking in there somewhere, unless they get it tested, which costs money. So they just put up a sign saying that it *may* contain hazardous materials on every older building, to comply with the regulations – and the only winners are the sign-makers.
    Regarding substandard produce, my understanding is that if a vegetable didn’t make the EU grade for sale as a whole vegetable, it couldn’t be given away as a whole vegetable – instead, it had to be sold (at a loss) for processing or animal feed. I could definitely be wrong, though.
    Thanks for the links to your posts too. I could look at ugly vegetable photos all day.

  3. ramonaranchera
    | Permalink

    Hey Nicola – thank you for your wonderful blog, which I just found via BLDGBLG: I’m working my way through your archives.

    Without wishing to sound like a whacko conspiracy theorist, it is fascinating to get into the rationale behind the regulations. I’ve been trying to unravel a lot of the history for a research project, and it’s seeming like a brief early, idealistic philosophy of consumer protection quickly became subverted by packers and grocery store buyers at the expense of both the consumer and the grower. Simply put, uniformity means easier boxing, storing and stacking for display. It is not strictly true, as far as I am aware, that ‘sub-standard’ produce could not ever be given away in the EU: it was often sent for processing, which paid the farmer considerably less per kilo (even though a bent cucumber tastes the same as a straight one and makes the same quantity of gazpacho or tzatziki or what have you) and I believe the same applies in the US, but I’d love you to set me right if you know different?

    I wrote about this here and here, if you’re interested. Uli Westphal’s photographs are particularly cool.

  4. The equivalent regulations are the grade standards in the U.S.: check out this proposed partial exemption to the grade requirement for fresh tomatoes, designed to allow the import of designer “ugly” tomatoes:

    The U.S. Standards for Grades of Fresh Tomatoes (Standards) specify the criteria tomatoes must meet to grade a U.S. No. 2, including that they must be reasonably well formed, and not more than slightly rough.

    The definitions section of the Standards defines reasonably well formed as not decidedly kidney shaped, lopsided, elongated, angular, or otherwise decidedly deformed. The term slightly rough means that the tomato is not decidedly ridged or grooved. This rule would amend Sec. 980.212 to exempt Vintage Ripes TM from these shape requirements as specified under the grade for a U.S. No. 2.

    Vintage Ripes TM are a trademarked tomato variety bred to look and taste like an heirloom-type tomato. One of the characteristics of this variety is its appearance. Vintage Ripes TM are often shaped differently from other round tomatoes. Depending on the time of year and the weather, Vintage Ripes TM are concave on the stem end with deep, ridged shoulders. They can also be very misshapen, appearing kidney shaped and lopsided. Because of this variance in shape and appearance, Vintage Ripes TM have difficulty meeting the shape requirements of the U.S. No. 2 grade.

  5. Are there similar regulations on ugly fruits and vegetables in the U.S.?