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Brexiteers are banging on about EU food myths to deflect from the real disaster

Bananas took a starring role in the Brexit brigade's myth-ridden narrative - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The Brexit brigade is still going on about bendy bananas and the return of imperial measures. But it is a strategy born of ignorance or – worse – panic

For many of its advocates, Brexit seems mostly an exercise in nostalgia – hence preoccupations with things like blue passports, a new royal yacht and war with Spain.

Another fixation which seems to be gathering momentum of late is a return to imperial weights and measures. It was Iain Duncan Smith, the former cabinet minister, who got the ball rolling recently by including it in his list of demands for a root and branch review of EU legislation on the UK statute book before 2020.

Among things he wanted scrapping were the working time directive and, oddly, legal protection of the great crested newt. But as a trading standards professional for more than 20 years, it was the weights and measures which caught my eye – as well as another favoured trope of the Brexiteers…. the abolition of EU regulations on bent bananas.

I am a qualified Food Standards Officer and Inspector of Weights and Measures. During my career I have advised countless businesses on consumer protection and food safety issues. A significant proportion of my career has involved enforcing weights and measures law and I was closely involved with the Metric Martyrs controversy. Now, almost 20 years on from the abolition of imperial units for trade use in the UK, we have high-profile politicians calling for their return.

Also in support of such a move is Andrea Leadsom, the secretary of state for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs – seemingly unaware that it is her government’s policy that the UK should retain a single measurements system based on the metric system.

Central to the statements of both Duncan Smith and Leadsom seems to be the belief that metric units of measurement were imposed on the UK through European regulation. If that is what these two senior politicians believe, they couldn’t be more wrong.

The process of metrication began in the mid-1960s when Harold Wilson’s Labour government announced a modernisation plan for Britain. This included Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’ speech.

Over the next 30 years, sector by sector, Britain moved to the metric system abandoning most imperial measures. The last sector to go metric was the sale of consumer goods from bulk, such as fruit and vegetables. Certain items such as the pint for beer and cider were specifically excluded from the metrication process, in perpetuity.

Metrication was not imposed on the UK by Europe. It was the result of decisions and legislation made by successive UK parliaments at Westminster. Only a very small number of weights and measures laws have anything to do with the EU. They are nearly all UK domestic law. Parliament could legislate for a return to imperial weights and measures at any time with no effect on our EU membership.

Harold Wilson’s decision to go metric was directly related to the UK being a signatory of the International Organisation of Legal Metrology treaty, which we signed in 1856. Metric measures became legal for trade use in the UK in 1875, nearly 100 years before we joined the EEC.

So if Duncan Smith is wrong about the EU imposing metric units on the UK, what truth is there in his claim that EU regulations ban bananas with excessive curvature?

The myth of EU regulations banning overly bent bananas, or other misshapen fruits and vegetables, has been circulating for decades. Like all good tales, it has a minute grain of truth which has been greatly exaggerated for political advantage.

The EU certainly has quality standards for bananas – to allow them to be traded internationally, and provide standards so consumers know what they are buying. But this does not mean a ban on any particular shape, rather, it means different classifications: in general, bananas should be ‘free from malformation or abnormal curvature’; Class 1 bananas are permitted to have ‘slight defects of shape’, and Class 2, ‘full-on defects of shape’. The classifications were developed with the approval of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in order to improve the lot of banana farmers. Over the years, these regulations have been a tinkered with a bit.

But what has never changed – and this is a point worth repeating – is that there has never been a ban. Instead it means bent bananas sell for a lower price, and are more likely to be used in industrial food production, for products such as smoothies, rather than being placed on display at your local greengrocers.

The bendy banana myth seems to have first appeared in 1994, when EU-wide fruit quality standards were first being discussed. It must be noted that these EU-wide regulations replaced almost identical UK domestic quality standards for fruit and vegetables. Stories in the Daily Mirror, the Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express claiming that there was such an EU ban were published that year. In 1998, the Sun ran the story again. It was one of countless EU myths published in UK papers since we joined the EEC in 1972.

Boris Johnson used the claim during the 2015 EU referendum campaign where he also incorrectly stated that there was an EU rule on the number of bananas in a bunch (no such rule exists and law on what fruits can be sold by the bunch is contained in a UK statutory instrument under the Weights and Measures Act 1985).

Since the early 1990s similar stories have also appeared in relation to the length of leeks, the colour of apples and the straightness of cucumbers. Each and every time such stories appear, the EU has to publish a rebuttal. Perhaps we should be more concerned about the amount of time and money the EU has had to spend countering spurious claims made by the UK press and our politicians?

The bendy banana ban wasn’t the worst EU fruit and veg myth circulated during the EU referendum. A related internet meme stated that the EU regulations on cabbages contained 26,911 words.

This meme was examined by BBC Radio 4’s More or Less, the statistics and fact checking programme. It found that the myth originated in pricing regulations for cabbages made by the US federal government during the Second World War. The US pricing regulations contained 2,600 words. Somehow, by the mid-1990s the number of words regarding US law on the pricing of cabbages had expanded to 26,911. US Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, used this word count on the floor of the Senate in a debate on agriculture standards. In 2006, the 26,911 word count jumped the Atlantic and Lord Ramsbotham of Kensington used it in a Lord’s debate on the EU duck egg exportation directive. The claim is completely false.

In truth, the EU quality standards for cabbages ran to only 2,000 words. They were revoked in 2009. The UK Red Tractor farm assurance scheme issues protocols on the growth and production of cabbages. For comparison, the current Red Tractor guidance runs to 23,510 words.

So why do eurosceptic politicians and newspaper columnists keep on using these tired EU myths? After all, they won the vote and Article 50 has been triggered. I doubt that Duncan Smith or his colleagues truly believe these stories. I suspect these myths are being used to deflect from greater problems with Brexit. That those now in charge of the process did not expect their cause to win and they have absolutely no idea what to do next.

Pippa Musgrave is a qualified Food Standards Officer, an Inspector of Weights and Measures and a member of the Chartered Institute of Trading Standards


Claim: Britain’s best-loved foods could be threatened by a flood of foreign imitations under EU trade deal

Made in: Sun on Sunday, September 2016

The Sun on Sunday reported that TTIP, the now defunct EU trade agreement with the USA and CETA, the EU’s trade agreement with Canada would result in low quality copies of classic British foods flooding into the market. Products mentioned included Cornish Pasties, Cumberland Sausage and Stilton.

The EU clearly stated that each of these products were protected under EU law through either PGI or PDO status. There was no chance that products made in America would be allowed to use those names. Indeed both the US and Canadian trade agreements sought to extend these protections beyond the EU single market.

This report was published after the EU referendum. It is interesting to note that the UK leaving the EU will end protected status for many UK foods. Brexit may result in cheap foreign versions of foods currently protected in the EU entering the UK market from foreign producers.

Claim: Italian cheese makers are furious after the EU allowed mozzarella to be made with powdered milk.

Made in: Daily Telegraph, June 2015

This claim was immediately debunked by the EU. Instead of permitting the making of mozzarella cheese with powdered milk, the EU was banning the process. The applicable EU rules prohibited cheese made from powdered milk being sold anywhere in Europe under the descriptions mozzarella, gorgonzola, parmigiano reggiano or provolone. Most of these cheeses were protected by European food quality schemes such as protection of designations of origin, protected geographic indications and traditional speciality guaranteed.

Claim: Brussels is trying to restrict the drinking habits of Britain’s coffee lovers

Made in: Daily Express, May 2015

The EU gave this claim short shrift, describing it as ‘utter rubbish’. They stated that it was inconceivable that the EU ever could – or would want to – restrict people from drinking as much coffee as they liked. What the Express was referring to was applications by makers of energy drinks as to the health benefits of the caffeine in their products. This was part of an ongoing process of health claims certification being undertaken by the European Food Standards Authority. EFSA had issued guidance that drinking up to 400mg per day of coffee (four strong cups of coffee) did not raise safety concerns for non-pregnant adults.

Claim: The EU want yoghurt made in Britain to be rebranded ‘Fermented Milk Pudding’

Made in: Sunday Mirror, March 2006

Fact: Following the article the EU stated that it had no plans to rename yoghurt. Discussions had taken place on a harmonised definition of yoghurt making it easier for manufacturers to trade across Europe. This included some UK yoghurt manufacturers whose products could not be sold under French law. No official proposals were made at the time.

The Mirror’s article seemed to be recycled from stories published in both the Daily Express and the Daily Telegraph in 2003 which stated that yoghurt was to be renamed ‘fermented milk’. The EU also responded to both these stories stating they were untrue.

Claim: Lemon Curd and Mincemeat may have to be renamed because the EU believe consumers on the continent may think their labels refer to dairy or red meat products

Made in: Daily Mail, October 2002

Fact: The EU responded to this story stating that terms such as ‘mince pie’ and ‘lemon curd’ were not being banned, although new food labelling rules were being considered.The new labelling rules were to apply to a strictly defined set of foodstuffs, not including lemon curd, and that bakery wares, pastries and biscuits, such as mince pies, were exempted from them.

Claim: EU chiefs have forced British food firm Colman’s to scrap its French mustard.

Made in: The Sun, April 2001

Fact: The EU pointed out that this was a decision made by Colman’s when its parent company Unilever bought their French Rival Amora-Maille. The EU competition commission was worried that with the purchase of Amora-Maille, Unilever would have a monopoly on the production of mustard. In order to comply with competition rules, Unilever decided to drop Colman’s French mustard but to continue to produce the Amora-Maille product.

Claim: The Queen has been told that the Sandringham Estate must stop selling wood in imperial measures within two weeks or trading standards officers will prosecute.

Made in: Daily Telegraph, January 2001

The EU responded stating that the decision to abandon imperial units was that of the UK government and it had nothing to do with the UK’s membership of the European Union. The EU pointed out that the decision of the UK to metricate was first made by Harold Wilson in 1965, before the UK joined the EEC and that the process had taken place, sector by sector, over the next 30 years.

Claim: What is labelled ‘Cornish Clotted Cream’ can now be made in Brittany, thanks to the EU

Made in: Sunday Telegraph, March 1998

Fact: Cornish Clotted Cream was to be protected by an EU-wide Protection of Geographic Indication as of the beginning of July 1998. The French ministry of agriculture had objected to the Cornish Clotted Cream producers application for PGI status, but this objection had been withdrawn. With the PGI coming into effect, it would be illegal to describe clotted cream produced in Brittany as Cornish.

Source: Euromyths, EU Europa website

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