Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Sure as eggs is eggs?

You may remember a couple of months ago a story that the Daily Mail ran, claiming that "British shoppers are to be banned from selling eggs by the dozen" thanks to a vote in the European Parliament. Not only would the new rules "not allow both the weight and the quantity to be displayed," claimed the Mail, it would also (inevitably) result in "higher costs" which would be passed on to shoppers.

This latest example of apparent Euro-nonsense much exercised the likes of Iain Dale (who fulminated against "these crackpot regulations that serve the purpose of no one apart from the idiot that wrote them in the first place") but was treated with scepticism, even scorn, by others. A couple of days later word came that it was all a misunderstanding. The UK Office of the European Parliament put out a statement announcing, emphatically:

Selling eggs by the dozen will NOT be illegal under the terms of the amendments adopted by the European Parliament to EU food labelling proposals. Labels will still be able to indicate the number of food items in a pack, whether of eggs, bread rolls or fish fingers. To suggest that British shoppers will not be allowed to buy a dozen eggs in the future is wrong.

So that was that. The Mail declared victory (despite the fact that nothing had actually been changed) and the caravan moved on. But were things really quite so simple?

I should start by saying that I was generally sceptical of the story, not because I trust the EU not to pass otiose and ludicrous regulations, but because the claims in the Mail made little sense. Apart from anything else, it seemed incredible that it would be illegal to write the number 6 on an eggbox that plainly and obviously contained 6 eggs, as the report seemed to be suggesting. (Not to mention that fact that it is already the case that egg packet labelling includes the approximate weight in grams.) And, of course, some products - of which eggs are an obvious example - can by their nature be sold only in discrete numerical quantities. One can't, after all, subdivide eggs without creating an unnecessary mess. Nevertheless, I couldn't help feeling that there must be something strange going on, mainly because the Mail's report contained a quote from an official at the Food Standards Agency, which ran as follows:

This proposal would disallow selling by numbers. Retailers would not be allowed to put “Six eggs” on the front of the box. If it was a bag of rolls, it would say “500g” instead of six rolls. It is important that information is provided in a way that is meaningful and beneficial to consumers.

It seemed - it still does - unlikely that the FSA should have made so elementary a misreading of a proposal, especially considering how easy it was for bloggers such as John Band to debunk. I contacted the FSA, asking for a clarification and pointing out some of the problems with the story. But I didn't hear back, and in any case the whole business seemed to reach a conclusion a couple of days later, so I forgot about it.

I've now finally had my reply. And the tone of it suggests that there might, after all, be a story here - just not quite the story originally reported.

Here's what Ruth Hodgson from the FSA's Food Labelling Branch told me:

The reports were suggesting that products traditionally sold by the number of units present in the pack such as eggs or bread rolls could no longer be sold in this way and would be sold by the weight or volume.

I would like to emphaise that the reports were premature, as negotiations on this proposal are ongoing. It is clear that the proposed new regulation would allow the number of units present in a pack to be provided in addition to the weight or volume of the product. However, consumers are used to buying some products such as eggs by number present in the pack and we want this practice to continue.The current proposal is unclear as to whether this is the case and we will continue to press for clarity in the negotiations.

On the one hand, then, it's perfectly clear - the proposed new regulation would allow the eggbox to carry the legend "6 eggs". No surprises there - and no explanation as to why the quote in the Mail from the FSA was so misleading. But if there's no doubt as to what the regulation means, why is it also "unclear" that under the new rules consumers would still be able to buy products by number? The FSA statement just makes no sense whatever.

It was easy enough to dismiss the Mail's story as absurd anti-EU scaremongering by the usual suspects - and the speedy clarification seemed to vindicate the usual Mailophobes. But there was nevertheless a story here - and an important one - demonstrated by that original FSA quote (which the email to me did not attempt to disown) and even by this new statement. One of the commonest complaints about the British attitude towards EU rules and directives is the manner in which our own regulators not only to fail to foresee the implications of certain harmonisation measures but then proceed to over-implement them with an almost perverse delight, interpreting their meaning in the most draconian fashion possible. And, needless to say, putting all the blame onto "Brussels bureaucrats".

Read that FSA statement again. What Ruth Hodgson appears to be telling me is that although the meaning of the proposal is perfectly clear to any normal person (including FSA personnel), it still isn't clear enough for their official purposes, and that therefore if it is possible to read absurdity into it (not being allowed to write "6 eggs" on a box of 6 eggs, for example) then that is what the FSA will probably do, just to be on the safe side. This sort of lunacy is not the fault of Brussels, and it is not the fault of the Daily Mail, but it probably accounts for the majority of the justified irritation that people find with the application of EU rules.