Myth: In enforcing EC quality standards the European Commission is putting certain products such as curved cucumbers or certain types of apple under threat of extinction from the market.
Response: The enforcement of EC quality standards is important for a number of reasons.
The drawing up of EC quality standards for goods and services is fundamental to the success of the Single Market.
In order to make the internal market work EC standards had to be drawn up as those across the Community often varied. This caused problems when goods, deemed marketable in one country were refused entry in another Member State because of stricter national standards. The Single Market concept overcomes these problems.
Therefore the basic philosophy of this Single Market is that what is traded in one Member State can be lawfully traded anywhere in the European Community. However consumer protection requires in certain cases the adoption of agreed standards so that an importer in one country knows what it is he/she is buying from another.
As far as fruit and vegetables go quality standards were first introduced into the common organisation of this market in 1962. The aim is to:
– guarantee consumers reasonable products with transparent fixing of market prices;
– facilitate trade in these products;
– eliminate obstacles to trade between the Member States by imposing the same requirements on any given product;
– ensure that trade between producers is carried out fairly with regard to competition;
– guarantee producers a reasonable price while at the same time removing the most inferior products from the market;
– guarantee the uniform application of the possibilities of market intervention;
– ensure that those products paid for by the Community which are sent for intervention were good enough to be sold on the open market for fresh fruit and vegetables.
International standards for fruit and vegetables have existed for more than forty years. The first international standards were drawn up by the UN/ECE (United Nations Economic Commission for Europe) at the start of the 1950’s. The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) started drawing up standards for these products in 1962.
Since the birth of the Common Market, EEC standards have gradually been put in place. It is a noteable feature of their application that the Community has always been one step in front of most other countries as these standards have been applied at all stages of the commercial chain (ie. from the moment the producer offers his goods for sale to the moment the consumer receives his goods at the point of sale). The UN/ECE and OECD standards apply solely to the dispatch stage although the actual standards are broadly identical.
The Member States’ quality control authorities ensure that that these standards are complied with.
What then is achieved by establishing rules governing the arch of a cucumber or equally the minumum size of an apple?
In practical terms the arch of a cucumber is not of any benefit to the consumer other that it is somewhat easier to peel. However for trading purposes, and especially trade conducted over large distances, a cucumber’s arch is particularly important as it eliminates much of the uncertainty as to the number of cucumbers that can be packed in a single box. Curved cucumbers make the number of cucumbers very variable.
However curved cucumbers are not banned: excessively curved cucumbers are in fact unusual and they simply have to be packed separately, and graded “Class III”. Consequently they are often cheaper than straight cucumbers: this is actually a standard procedure for other types of products which are not perfect but whose consumption quality is in no way questionable. (An example of this would be slight colour errors in the case of clothing).
The size of apples are also affected by much the same criteria. Diferent apple varieties have different qualities: some are naturally large, some small. An also apple must have reached a certain stage in its development before it is picked so that it can ripen and taste nice. For these reasons the standards lay down minimum sizes for eating apples.
For practical reasons concerning quality control only two minimum sizes have been fixed. The consumer generally uses the larger size; industries making apple juice, jam and so on use the smaller. More minimum sizes could have been added, but this would only cause the trade significant extra burdens.
How is each standard decided upon?
Normally, the European Commission is asked to establish a standard for a specific product, or to change an existing standard. This request can originate from a number of interest groups, such as the European or national agricultural organisations, trade or consumer bodies. Nevertheless, before the Commission can proceed further, the proposal has to be supported by at least one EC Member State.
The Commission draws up a proposal, which is normally – where there is one – based on the text of an OECD or UN/ECE Standard. This proposal is then discussed by a committee of advisory experts containing representatives from all twelve Member States. The role of the Commission representative at these meetings is mainly to act as a referee and to put forward compromise solutions so that a standard can be established which all Member States can accept and which can help realise the aims listed above.
If a new standard is being discussed, a series of meetings has to be held before an agreement is achieved. Member States often have differing interests; some are primarily producer countries who might want rules which are less strict than those whose interests may concentrate on consumer interests.
Once the committee of experts has come to an agreement, the proposal is sent to the Management Committee for fruit and vegetables where the Member States discuss the proposal and finally vote on it. Once agreed, the proposal is passed to the Commission for approval. If this is given, the appropriate piece of legislation is published in the Official Journal, usually about two weeks afterwards.