Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Vote Leave - a load of cabbage?

There’s an email doing the rounds with the title “For anybody who doesn't fully understand the Euro situation”. It says:

Pythagoras' theorem - 24 words.
Lord's Prayer - 66 words.
Archimedes' Principle - 67 words.
10 Commandments - 179 words.
Gettysburg address - 286 words.
US Declaration of Independence - 1,300 words.
US Constitution with all 27 Amendments - 7,818 words.
EU regulations on the sale of cabbage - 26,911 words

Now I’m a Euro-sceptic but, not only is this tosh, it’s tosh imported from the USA. Originally about cabbage seeds it has been repeated many times since, including allegations that EU rules on cauliflower, caramel and the export of duck eggs are all, supposedly, exactly 26,911 words long.

For the EU and cabbages the actual position is:

EU regulations on the sale of cabbage – ZERO words.
EU regulations on the production of all farm produce: about 32,000 words (which doesn’t seem bad, really)
British industry protocol for how to grow, harvest, store and sell cabbage: 23,510 words.

So says Tony Richardson, technical director of the British Brassica Growers Association and author of said protocol.

He is quoted in “The Great Cabbage Myth” published on the BBC website on 6 April (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-35962999), which I happened to read more than a fortnight before I got the email. It’s quite a long piece, but the highlights are:

The original mythical claim that a government document was “26,911” words long stems from the USA in the 1950s. Before that, during World War Two, the US government issued a memo to control the price of – guess what - cabbage seeds. It was 2,600 words long, says Barry O'Neill, professor of political science at the University of California, who has researched the origins of the cabbage myth.

At some point a rumour surfaced that the cabbage regulations were 10 times longer and not just confined to seeds. In 1951 the president of a Chicago pickle and relish company mentioned it in a letter to food brokers across the country. Later a newspaper quiz asked readers to match word counts with documents (Test Your Horse Sense 1951) - the cabbage regulation was said to be 25,000 words long. Soon this became 26,911 "suggesting careful research", says O'Neill.

The following year, American media commentator Walter Winchell "stated it as fact in 1952 in an attack on federal price controls during the Korean War."

Subsequently, claims appeared that there were 26,911 words of regulation in Europe on a range of different things - from cauliflower to caramel. In 2006, Lord Ramsbotham of Kensington quoted the figure in the House of Lords in relation to a "European directive on the export of duck eggs".

Inventing 26,911-word regulations that don’t exist seems to have become a grand tradition. It doesn't seem to matter which government or which product - you can bet that the regulation is 26,911 words long, even if it doesn't actually exist. I’m wondering if people who know all about the myth feed it to the likes of Lord Ramsbotham, so when it re-appears they spot the specific number and laugh at the latest dupe.

So what actually is the position on the EU and cabbages? In 2006, Regulation (EC) No 634/2006 addressed the size of cabbages, and how they should be labelled, in just under 2,000 words. In 2009, however, these regulations, along with some other rules on the sale of fruit and vegetables, were repealed. It seems the EU decided that rules on things like how curvy a cucumber should be were a bit daft.

Today, there are still EU regulations governing farm produce. The rules on marketing are actually rather snappy - summed up in 263 words to be exact. There are much broader regulations about growing farm produce and these are long - about 32,000 words, half the length of a short book. They don't single out cabbages. The number of words of EU regulation dedicated specifically to cabbage is, in fact, zero.

However, on top of EU regulation, farmers in the UK have to abide by the Assured Produce Standards, sometimes known as the Red Tractor Assurance. The organisation's protocol for cabbage has 23,510 words. It was written by Tony Richardson, quoted above.

So when it comes to instructions on how to grow, harvest, store and sell cabbage specifically, it’s actually the British industry guidelines are rather wordy.

No doubt there is a permanent stream of gobbledegook issuing from Brussels. But this particular Chinese whisper isn’t a good reason to Vote Leave.

No comments:

Post a Comment