Knobbly fruit and veg back on menu as EU plans to scrap uniformity laws

For years, the bent cucumber – alongside its maligned compatriot, the straight banana – has been wielded by Eurosceptics eager to clobber the European Union. But Brussels bureaucrats are to usher in a new age of acceptance when it comes to knobbly fruit and vegetables, scrapping the rules dictating that only straight cucumbers can be sold in shops as "class one" fruit.

Misshapen and blemished fruit and veg are likely to find their way back on to supermarket shelves – although they may be labelled "for cooking" under reforms being proposed by the EU's Danish Agriculture commissioner, Mariann Fischer Boel.

"People [are] saying that prices are too high, [so] it makes no sense to be chucking food away. We want to have two classes, allowing supermarkets to sell funny shaped vegetables," said Michael Mann, a spokesman for the European Commission.

Ms Fischer Boel wants to abandon the eccentric rules that brought scorn on the EU and led to criticism that perfectly formed harvests had been achieved at the expense of taste. The rules have created some enduring myths, such as the fiction that bent cucumbers are banned – in fact, under EU regulations, cucumbers with an arc of more than 10mm for every 10cm of length cannot be sold with a premium class one label. Other rules also specify the diameter of carrots that can be sold as class one, unless they are officially regarded as baby carrots.

"We currently have a book of 36 regulations that don't need to be so complicated," said Mr Mann. "So we are planning to have a basic rule which makes sure that what you are getting in the shops is not dirty, diseased or rotten, and only have specific rules for the main things like apples, peaches, pears and strawberries." He said the EU Commission wanted to dump 26 rules originally intended to lay down quality standards, including "the famous cucumber one".

"It's been rather silly," he added. "We are always being criticised for being too complicated and this is one of the areas where we felt we could make a real improvement."

Agriculture ministers led by Britain's Hilary Benn have welcomed the reforms, which would impose minimum standards on just 10 items: apples, citrus fruit, kiwi fruit, lettuces and endives, peaches, pears, strawberries, sweet peppers, table grapes and tomatoes.

But not everyone in the EU has welcomed the move. "Most member states have said they don't like the simplification, but we are not having that," said Mr Mann. "We are determined this is going to go ahead. We are going to continue the fight to make sure these unnecessary rules go."

Denis MacShane, former Labour EU minister, saluted the move. "At long last, we are going to get crooked cucumbers in our shops," he said. "Hooray for Europe! But I guarantee the Eurosceptics will say that Brussels is abolishing our inalienable right to straight ones."

In light of the dramatic increase in childhood obesity, Ms Fischer Boel is also set to reveal an EU-wide scheme to provide fruit for schools. Yvette Cooper, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, pioneered a similar scheme in the UK when she was Public Health minister.

The new EU rules

* Bananas

The rules for bananas will remain unchanged, meaning both overly bendy and straight fruit cannot be labelled class one. EU directive 2257/1994 dictates that top bananas must be "free from malformation or abnormal curvature of the fingers". Regulation bendiness helps speed packing and prevent damage in transportation. Class two bananas can have full-on "defects of shape".

* Cucumbers

Directive 1677/88 stipulates that class one cucumbers may bend by 10mm for every 10cm of length. Class two cucumbers may bend twice as much. This will be relaxed.

* Carrots

Carrots less than 1.9cm in diameter at the thick end could not be sold as class one, unless marketed as "baby" varieties. This will be scrapped.

* Pears

Will still be protected by directive 907/2004, stipulating that class one pears must have a diameter of at least 56mm.

* Peaches and plums

Class one peaches must be at least 56mm in diameter between July and October. Victoria plums must be at least 35mm across.

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