Firms urge Brussels to water down its sauce test

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The Independent Online

One of the European Union's most arcane operations, a test that helps to keep imported lumpy sauces off European dinner plates, is about to be watered down.

The test, which involves passing a sample of each new sauce through a wire mesh, is designed to catch thicker sauces imported from outside the EU, which have to pay a higher import charge. If a test result creeps over the 20 per cent "lump threshold", customs will reclassify sauces as vegetables and double the levy.

The process has provoked the anger of international sauce-makers, who argue that such rules cost them millions of pounds. They claim that the test inhibits exports because non-EU countries retaliate by imposing similar charges on European sauces – provoking a bewildering range of tit-for-tat wire-mesh tests.

The issue has come to a head as food makers veer away from traditional products such as HP sauce and towards the thicker "yuppie sauces" used as a base for convenience cooking. Manufacturers estimate that at least 20 per cent of the €440m (£270m) annual sauce business is affected by the rules and want them scrapped in favour of a case-by-case, common-sense ruling on whether a sauce is really a sauce.

But officials argue that some test is necessary to distinguish between sauces and canned vegetables which, like most agricultural products, generally attract higher tariffs.

This week a sub-committee of the EU's Customs Code committee will suggest to member states a compromise that would allow a lump content of 30 per cent and abolish the wire-mesh test.

A spokeswoman for the European Commission said the change would allow it to move with the times. "Consumer tastes have changed," she said. "People like to have more vegetable and even fruit in their sauces and we have to cater for the change in taste."