Richard North, 03/06/2014  

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The Mail is telling us that Waitrose is to start selling a range of "blemished" fruit in an attempt to curb the colossal levels of food dumped for being imperfect.

The supermarket, it is said, "will introduce a range of apples that have been damaged by poor weather conditions alongside its normal selection of more attractive fruit". It has decided to tackle the obsession with perfect produce, stocking specifically labelled Cripps Pink, Braeburn, Royal Gala and Cox varieties of apples.

Waitrose apple buyer Greg Sehringer said: "We are lucky that our customers are savvy enough who understand the unpredictability of farming and to trust that the fruit will be just as delicious, even if the apples don't look as perfect as usual".

Interestingly, the newspaper goes on to tell us that: "Strict EU rules on misshapen fruit and vegetables were relaxed in 2009 following years of criticism. Marketing standards detailing acceptable sizes and shapes were scrapped altogether for 26 types of produce, including carrots, cauliflowers, cucumbers, leeks, plums and onions".

That is indeed the case, as the Commission website helpfully tells us. However, as the Mail acknowledges, standards "were kept in place for a number of popular items, including tomatoes, apples, grapes and pears".

Since apples are included in the products for which a marketing standard applies, it would appear that there are limitations on what Waitrose can sell, and indeed that is the case. According to the Mail, the law simply requires that "substandard" produce has to be specially labelled.

This, however, is not correct. Apples sold must be graded, in accordance with Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) No 543/2011 of 7 June 2011, laying down detailed rules for the application of Council Regulation (EC) No 1234/2007 in respect of the fruit and vegetables and processed fruit and vegetables sectors.

And, as one will readily see, apples sold must conform with one of three specified standards, as set out in Annex 1, Part B. These grades are: "Extra", "Class I" and "Class II". There is no question of selling "substandard" fruit – simply that the "Class II" is sufficiently relaxed as to allow the sale of blemished and misshapen fruit.

Fruit is thus allowed a range of minor defects, "provided the apples retain their essential characteristics as regards the quality, the keeping quality and presentation", while minimum sizes and range tolerances still apply. In all respects, quality standards are still quite rigorous and, as for labelling, the fruit must carry a description of the class.

What gives this story "legs" though, are several issues. Firstly, it has always been open for supermarkets to sell Class II produce (with certain exceptions). But, now they have decided to do so, the farmers are not overly happy.

The NFU's Guy Poskitt says: "Of course I welcome this news, but as farmers we're always keen to get as much value back to the farm and reduce waste, so none of us intend to grow inferior produce".

He then adds: "And if supermarkets market these so-called ugly vegetables as a cheaper alternative, what will happen in good years when we have bumper crops of attractive produce? The last thing we want to end up doing is putting our best produce in value ranges".

The issue here is that, in well-managed farming – in the good years – the bulk of the crop will be "Class I" or "Extra". If the Supermarkets establish a sizeable market for "Class II", there will be years when farmers cannot meet the demand for the lower grade product, yet might have plenty of produce at the higher grades.

The way the market works, farmers have to downgrade their own product, getting a lower price for it, reducing the overall profitability of their operations which, in any event, are often marginal.

For this reason, farmers often prefer to keep Class II product off the mass retail market, reserving it for processing or for on-farm sales. In order to maintain the price, they will even dump Class II product, the alternative being forcible downgrading and lower margins, or dumping higher graded fruit because it cannot compete with the cheaper produce.

All this goes to show that, in commodity production and marketing, nothing is ever as simple as it seems. What looks a good idea in principle can end up costing farmers and driving them out of business.

But there is a further twist to this take, which emerges from scrutiny of the EU legislation. Although the EU has made great play of abolishing 26 of the 36 specific marketing standards - including the infamous "straight cucumber directive", that doesn't mean that such standards no longer apply.

Instead, the produce must conform to what are known as "general marketing standards" (GMS). These are not specified in detail by the EU, but if your want to be sure that your product complies, you are allowed to apply the relevant UNECE standards. If you comply with UNECE, you meet the GMS. 

In other words, the EU hasn't abandoned detailed marketing standards at all. It has simply bumped the rules up to the regional UNECE which is now the official standards-setting body. Thus, while the EU enjoys its propaganda coup, telling everyone it has got rid of its bent cucumber rules, the UNECE Cucumber standard applies. 

And guess what: the "Extra" standard requires cucumbers to be "well-shaped and practically straight". What comes round, goes round. Like cockroaches, straight cucumbers will dominate the world (unless you are Class II, of course – then you can be truly bent).


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