EU 'threat' to British eggs is scrambled
To the disappointment of red-top newspapers and irate contributors to talk radio, the European Union confirmed yesterday that MEPs had not voted to do away with a cherished feature of Great British life.
In an emergency statement, the European Parliament said: "Selling eggs by the dozen will not be illegal under the terms of the amendments adopted to EU food labelling proposals. Labels will still be able to indicate the number of items in a pack – whether it's eggs, bread rolls or fish fingers."
While dismaying EU critics who had pounced on reports suggesting it was banning common-sense labelling, the news will put at rest the minds of shoppers facing the spectre of having to guess how many food items were in cartons containing a dozen or half a dozen eggs.
The Great Egg Scare – which had echoes of the hysteria that greeted Edwina Currie's remarks in 1988 that most British egg production was infected with salmonella – began with an exclusive in The Mail on Sunday.
On Sunday its front-page story was headlined: "EU to ban selling eggs by the dozen: Shopkeepers' fury as they are told all food must be weighed and sold by the kilo."
The story began: "British shoppers are to be banned from buying eggs by the dozen under new regulations approved by the European Parliament. For the first time, eggs and other products such as oranges and bread rolls will be sold by weight instead of by the number contained in a packet."
According to the paper, MEPs had ended a British opt-out from EU rules forbiding the selling of goods by quantity, meaning that instead of packaging telling shoppers a box contains six eggs, it would show the weight the eggs in grams.
Promising a fight-back from the Food Standards Agency, the paper reported: "It could be the first test of David Cameron's pre-Election promise to stand up for Britain's interests in the EU."
The Federation of Bakers warned, though, that it might be too late to save the sale of "six bread rolls".
Adam Leyland, editor of The Grocer magazine, railed at the stupidity. "You couldn't make it up, could you?" he said. "It would be funny if it were an April Fool's joke. But it's not and it will potentially cost the industry millions, while confusing customers no end. The EU's attempt to simplify labelling has created a multi-headed monster."
Even the Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, was drawn into the row, saying in a statement. "This goes against common sense," she protested.
"Shopkeeping is a long standing British tradition and we know what customers want. They want to buy eggs by the dozen and they should be allowed to – a point I shall be making clear to our partners in Europe."
But the story was not what it seemed. It arose from an EU shake-up of food labelling, which defeated the traffic lights scheme backed by health campaigners, but tightened the law on country of origin, and cleared up other matters, such as the mandatory labelling of trans-fat and the weight of foods.
No one noticed – apart from the European Parliament – that the weight rule would not ban other forms of description, such as quantity.
Egg packs will have to state the weight, but can carry on being sold and labelled in half-dozens and dozens.
MEP Renate Sommer, who is steering the food labelling laws through the Parliament, was unequivocal. "There will be no changes to selling foods by number," she said.
"Selling eggs by the dozen, for example, will not be banned."
The European Consumers' Organisation said the scare, coming on top of claims from Italian chocolate giant Ferrero Rocher that Nutella would have to carry a health warning, was rooted in misinformation.
A spokesman said: "Much of the European media are now starting to see both the extent and inaccuracy of a lot of the information we were seeing given to MEPs before this major Parliament vote.
"The 'banning of half a dozen eggs' is a perfect example. Not only is it a simply inaccurate scare story which has been widely published, but it hugely distracts from the real issue. The vote was primarily about traffic light labelling and how to ensure more accurate information to consumers, yet it was contorted into a vote on labelling foods as 'dangerous' or banning sale by the dozen."
Great Euro myths...
The sky's the limit
Ukip politician Nigel Farage claimed the EU Single European Sky agreement prevented Britain from lifting a no-fly zone during volcanic ash cloud in April. In fact, it was up to individual countries and several EU states lifted restrictions before the UK. The Civil Aviation Authority said: "Nigel Farage obviously hasn't got any knowledge of aviation."
Pick of the crop
In 1995, the Ministry of Agriculture took issue with a shipment of strawberries on the grounds they were too square. Workers in Hull picked out the mis-shapen fruit and returned 880 punnets to Spain. While the EU specified that Class I strawberries should be oval, the punnets could have been sold unclassified. It was suggested the inspector had been over-zealous in interpreting European rules.
Pounds and pints
Fresh fruit and veg must be sold in kilos and grams under EU rules, but prices may also be marked up in pounds and ounces. Shoppers can still ask for "two pounds of potatoes". Britain has an unlimited opt-out for miles and pints. Three years ago the EU said: "There is not now and never will be any requirement to drop imperial measurements."