Could this banana be straighter?; Do mussels get enough fresh air?; Does our chocolate have the right fat?

The EU has lots to say about British food. Peter Popham sifts the wheat from the chaff
Just when you thought it couldn't possibly get any worse - when the everyday tale of Brussels folk and their solemn judgements on square strawberries, bent bananas, prawn cocktail flavour crisps, blue cheese and hung game appeared to have got as silly as they were going to get - news arrives that henceforth shellfish in transit are, like sheep, to be given statutory rest periods.

Another little bomb of preposterousness explodes in the press, leaving us stunned, gasping for air, but little the wiser. Once the smoke of outrage has cleared, certain questions clamour to be answered. Can bureaucrats really be that silly? What drives them to it? Might their actions, seen from another angle, appear eminently sensible?

British food manufacturers and importers have been wrestling with European directives ever since Britain entered the Common Market in 1974. Back then the situation was arguably even worse: the original six continental member states had huge areas of legislation in common; so European legislation designed to promote free trade by harmonising the laws of each member state often involved no more than nipping here and tucking there to bring national and pan-European standards into conformity.

In 1973, for example, a European directive went out on cocoa and chocolate products, prescribing the permitted ingredients that could be described as "chocolate". As from Dieppe to Syracuse there is broad agreement on what chocolate ought to taste like, this was uncontroversial.

With Britain's accession in 1974, however, such cosy agreements were thrown into turmoil. You can see why de Gaulle said "non" for so long: we, after all, were the country which until three years before had held that 12 pennies made a shilling and 20 shillings one pound; we were to cling to our avoirdupois, our feet, furlongs, pecks and pints, for far longer than that. And if we were stubborn about yielding to Brussels over abstractions, how much more fiercely would we fight for the right to eat chocolate containing up to 5 per cent non-cocoa butter fat?

The great prawn cocktail crisp controversy of 1992 similarly centred on a taste that was peculiarly British. With the great expansion of countries and cultures belonging to the EC, the sort of problems Britain brought in train - problems associated with cultural differences - have exploded, and as a result the original aim of "harmonisation" of products has been abandoned in favour of "mutual product recognition". This sounds much more tolerant and open-minded, closer to the goal that ex-Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd urged, a hands-off attitude to "the nooks and crannies of our national life".

In practice, however, "harmonisation" and "mutual product recognition" are often hard to tell apart. In the case of prawn cocktail crisps, British manufacturers used minute quantities of a certain sweetener employed by manufacturers in no other country in the Community except Ireland. It was only after an epic scrap that Brussels agreed to permit the use of the sweeteners, and prawn cocktail crisps lived to crunch another day.

But now the same snack is embroiled in yet another battle - to do with labelling. Already snacks groan under the weight of data carried on the packet - ingredients and detailed nutritional information concerning fat, carbohydrate, protein, sodium, etc.

The new menace is what is called the "double-labelling programme", which will require information to be spelled out three separate ways: in the ingredients, the nutritional list, but also now in the product name. The snack will be required to be described as "prawn cocktail flavour potato snack - with sweetener". "A complete nonsense," fumes a spokesman from Snacma, the industry association. The directive could be implemented within days.

Rules like this illustrate the nannying urge of Brussels, the compulsion to make us aware of what we are ingesting; a similarly worthy motive doubtless lies behind the move to have whisky classified as a dangerous chemical, alongside paraffin and bleach. But other curious decisions are harder to fathom. The man at Fyffes seems comfortable with the notorious ban on bent bananas which hit the press in 1994. "It was quite a sensible initiative," he said, "but of course the media got hold of it and made it look absurd."

But was it really so sensible? As he goes on to explain, the banana is an example of the sort of item that sells exclusively by its visual impact: a clean-looking, elegantly formed banana will sell; a malformed, blackening one won't - even though the latter may be tastier. So what business has Brussels reinforcing such prejudices?

The answer is more complicated and murky than it appears, and has to do not with the bananas available in the shops but with limiting the subsidies paid to producers. "It was to limit the number of deformed bananas dumped on the European market," the man from Fyffes explains. But an initiative arguably rooted in sound commercial sense gets mulched up for the tabloids and turns into nonsense.

Whatever happened to the bent banana, after its 15 minutes of fame? "The directive is probably law now," the Fyffes man says vaguely. "It's only a safety net, it's got limited effect anyway..." What he seems to mean is that the directive came down the pipeline from Brussels, was duly translated into UK law, then quietly forgotten.

If we are to stay inside the EU and retain our sanity, the only hope is to learn to treat the Commission's directives with a little more worldliness and cynicism. Directives come in two parts: a preamble stating intentions; and the articles, stating requirements. Much of the trouble we have got into with the directives - recently, for example, with the excessive documentation required when fish are imported - is through translating the articles of directives word for word into UK law, then implementing them with terrifying northern rigour. In a recent survey conducted by the Food and Drink Federation, 31 per cent of companies polled stated that "over-zealous implementation in the UK" of EU legislation was an important barrier to European trade.

Elsewhere in the EU, by contrast, especially in the south, they tend rather to follow what they take to be the spirit of the preamble to directives. "It's clear from the preamble what is meant," a man from one food industry association says. "If the words are wrong, that's just a small unhappy detail." This sort of common sense approach should be an example to us.

But there may be other lessons to learn: we may have missed several rare opportunities to revolutionise our living standards for the better. The EC presented us with a perfect opportunity to jettison some of the worst products of our civilisation: British chocolate, prawn cocktail crisps, bright green mushy peas, pink sasusages - all these might, with a little more cunning, have been consigned to the dustbin of history. We would have made friends in Europe, and improved our own quality of life. We've blown it.

The shape of things to come: what the EU really says

Many stories that appear in the press regarding those "barmy Eurocrats" are little more than xenophobic bluster about directives that have barely been mooted, let alone implemented. The bizarre regulations that follow, though, are indeed in force.

Strawberries must be oval. Fruits that are not a deep red colour are classed as "bad". Last year, Brussels officials ordered 880 punnets to be returned to Spanish growers because the strawberries were apparently too square.

Bananas should be free of pests and noxious odours. They should not be rotten or "excessively curved".

Cucumbers should not be curved. The guidelines lay down a "maximum height of arc 10mm per 10cm length of cucumber". Because "if you have straight cucumbers, it's possible to know how many you are getting in a box" is the official EU justification.

You thought they were vegetables, but carrots are classified as fruit, since this allows the Portuguese to continue their practice of making carrot jam.

Lobsters must be no smaller than 85mm. Fisherman Foster Cammish has been charged with catching three undersize lobsters, one of which was too small by only 0.5mm. Magistrates gave him a conditional discharge, but he still had to pay pounds 309 in costs.

The chocolate debate continues. Seven countries in the EU (including the UK) use fats other than cocoa butter in chocolate manufacture, though the appropriateness of this is under review. The proportion of milk to cocoa also varies from country to country: the current UK minimum for ingredients for milk chocolate is 20 per cent cocoa solids and 20 per cent milk solids; in other European countries the figures are 25 and 14 per cent respectively. A spokesman for Cadbury's pointed out that the high milk content of its chocolate necessitated the use of other fats to control texture and preserve the taste the British like so much.

Scott Hughes