For 29 years, they have kept Britain's cucumbers and bananas on the straight and narrow. But now two judges have decided that the bêtes noires of Eurosceptics – the EU fruit and vegetable regulations – have no force in law.
The raft of rules laid down in European Union legislation to govern everything from the colour of aubergines to the width of peaches was ruled by the High Court yesterday to be unenforceable. The supermarket chain Asda won a claim that the food grading codes, long favoured by Eurosceptics to emphasise red tape in Brussels, have not been incorporated into English and Welsh law.
The ruling against the Government by two judges at the High Court in London in effect makes null and void the rules governing the shape, colour and size of almost all fruit and veg on sale.
Officials at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) confirmed last night that prosecutions to enforce the regulations would have to be halted until the law had been clarified.
A spokesman said: "This was a victory of a narrow, technical point. We are considering how to amend the law to ensure that the regulations on fruit and vegetables are enforceable.
"There are a number of ways we can do that which are being looked at. However, it may be that for the next period of time we are unable to take people to court."
The judgment followed a prosecution by staff from Defra's little-known horticultural marketing inspectorate for 14 alleged breaches of EU marketing standards at an Asda store two years ago.
The spot check at a store in Portsmouth led to accusations ranging from a lack of labels indicating country of origin or quality class on various fruit to the sale of damaged iceberg lettuces.
Under the Horticulture Produce Regulations, introduced when Britain joined what was the European Community in 1973, all fruit and vegetables on sale in British shops must meet strict criteria.
But while officials in Brussels and London insist the rules are designed to protect consumers, the pedantic nature of some of them has provoked widespread derision. Rule 1677/88, for example, stipulates a cucumber can have a premium "Class One" classification only if it curves less than 10mm for every 10cm. Similar rules have applied on the shape of bananas since 1994.
But in yesterday's ruling, Lord Justice Rose and Mr Justice Gibbs agreed with Asda that the criminal sanctions introduced in 1973 had never been given legal force in England and Wales.
The case against the supermarket, which denies the claims that it was selling faulty produce, had already been dismissed by a district judge.
The Government now faces a choice between taking its case to the House of Lords or changing existing legislation in Parliament.
An Asda spokesman said: "This is not an anti-EU crusade. We will continue to observe the regulations but there was a significant legal point to be addressed."
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