French fries are cooked during a quality evaluation at McDonald’s Corp. headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois, U.S. (Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg)

The EU Should Leave French Fries Alone

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Two weeks before the European  Parliament election, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, one of the most influential leaders of the European center right, has revived one of the most persistent criticisms of the European Union: It meddles too much where it shouldn’t. “Nobody needs EU regulations on how to make a schnitzel or fries,” Kurz said in a statement sent to the Austrian news agency APA.

Kurz is right. The European Commission led by Jean-Claude Juncker hasn’t done enough to curb the Brussels bureaucracy’s regulatory overreach despite setting up a special body to do so. To make the EU more credible to Europeans and less vulnerable to attacks from nationalists, the next Commission needs to take criticism like Kurz’s more seriously.

Perhaps the most famous case of EU overreach, thanks to U.K. politician Boris Johnson who used it repeatedly to ridicule the bloc, is Regulation 1333/2011, which laid down marketing standards for bananas. It states that even the lowest-class bananas for sale to end consumers must be “free from malformation or abnormal curvature of the fingers” and that they cannot be shorter than 14 centimeters unless they come from certain areas of Portugal and Greece.

The image of a Brussels bureaucrat measuring the length and curvature of bananas with a set of gleaming tools is a powerful one. There are no draconian EU-wide punishments for selling bananas of any shape or length, and member countries can exempt traders from banana quality inspections, so the EU isn’t exactly “telling us what shape our bananas should be,” as Johnson claimed. But as an ordinary consumer, I can’t help but wonder why banana size and shape standards aren’t simply left up to the growers and the supermarket chains that sell their produce. Does the EU really have to expend resources on something like this?

Kurz’s mention of schnitzels and fries isn’t entirely frivolous, either. The European Commission’s Regulation 2017/2158 sets targets for a reduced presence of acrylamide in foods. The substance, held by experts to be a potential carcinogen, emerges automatically in fried foods. Before the regulation was  adopted, former Austrian Health Minister Andrae Rupprechter protested against an EU “frying police” that would mess with deep-fried Wiener schnitzels. The resulting text doesn’t list fried meat among affected products but it does mention French fries, bread, roasted coffee beans and cereals. Their producers must seek to reduce acrylamide levels to drive them below EU-set benchmarks. The regulation says, for example, that French fries makers “shall remove slivers right after cutting to avoid burned pieces in the final cooked product.”

One could have endless scientific arguments about whether non-smokers are exposed to dangerous levels of acrylamide, but that’s not the point. Is the EU really the right organization to tell restaurants how to make fries and hipster coffee shops how to roast coffee?

On the one hand, it’s probably a good idea to have uniform food quality across the EU. The bloc is right, for example, to have moved against so-called dual quality foods – branded products that are sold with cheaper ingredients in eastern Europe than in the EU’s more affluent west. On the other hand, it’s a little hypocritical to tell fast food restaurants how they should fry potatoes while allowing alcohol, tobacco and potentially harmful substances like the weed-killer glyphosate. Perhaps, if the EU is really worried about acrylamide in food, an outreach campaign would make more sense than a regulation – but, generally, it’s hard not to wonder, as Kurz does, why can’t the bloc just leave this relatively low-priority matter to member states?

Doesn’t the EU have enough to do on really important matters, which, according to the most recent Eurobarometer survey, include migration, fighting terrorism, member states’ public finances, climate change – and specifically do not include micromanaging food preparation?

In his statement, Kurz mentioned 1,000 EU regulations that should be abolished as unnecessary. The Juncker commission set up the so-called Regulatory Scrutiny Board to do just that kind of work and to make sure more unneeded regulations aren’t adopted. Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans, one of the candidates for Juncker’s job this year, got the high-profile “Better Regulation” portfolio. But despite the supposedly increased scrutiny, the French fries regulation, for example, got through in 2017 and entered into force last year.

According to the Regulatory Scrutiny Board’s annual report for 2018, a proposal to set legal limits for industrial trans fat content in foods is under consideration now. It’s another potential attack on French fries, kebabs, pies and cakes. If adopted, it’s likely to send producers scrambling for loopholes like the one Danish bakers found a few years ago when the EU nearly forced them to decrease cinnamon content in traditional rolls: The rolls were reclassified as a “traditional or seasonal food.”

The EU bureaucracy ought to realize that the problem isn’t really with its desire to keep Europeans healthy: It’s  fine, and so is the “precautionary principle” on using incomplete scientific evidence about hazards, which the EU  has adopted but the U.S., for example, hasn’t. Rather, what bothers national politicians and many voters is the surprising amount of time and human resources Brussels has for matters of little concern to the public. It contributes to member states’ reluctance to pay more into the EU budget and, in the end, to grant the bloc more powers in any area, even if they are really needed, for example, in joint fiscal policy to support the common currency project.

Kurz is in the unenviable position of campaigning against his governing coalition partner, the far-right Freedom Party, so he’s hunting for votes by shifting his agenda to the right. But that shouldn’t obscure a hard truth from the EU political leadership: To proceed with the European project, it must go for deeper cuts to the bureaucracy and a massive review of existing and proposed regulation to end all attempts at micromanagement. Then it can focus on what Europeans really want from the union.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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