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Brussels Ponders: When Is a Lump a Vegetable?

January 16, 2002|From the Wire

Lumpy sauces have been the bane of cooks for centuries. Now they're bedeviling bureaucrats as well. Make that Euro-crats. As reported in the Times of London, there is a heated debate going on in Brussels over just how lumpy a sauce can be before it must be classified as a vegetable.

The idea of European Union functionaries sitting around arguing about this may seem like something out of "Yes, Minister," but for food manufacturers, the potential consequences are enormous. Almost $80 million is at stake.

That's because imported vegetables are taxed at a much higher rate than most other food goods. The tariff on sauces is 20%; on vegetables it can go as high as 288%. The goal is to protect farmers, but the unintended consequence is a room full of gray-suited bureaucrats debating whether the EU's "lump limit" should be raised.

Right now the limit is 20% by weight. Or, as stated in Regulation 288/97: "The expression 'sauce' does not cover a preparation of vegetables, fruit or other edible plants if the percentage of those ingredients passing through a metal wire sieve with an aperture of 5 millimeters is, after rinsing in water of a temperature of 20 Celsius, less than 80% by weight calculated on the original preparation."

So on one hand, you've got farmers worried that imported vegetables might be sneaking in under the guise of overly rusticated sauces, undercutting their market share. On the other is the lumpy gravy lobby--Le Comite des Industries des Mayonnaises et Sauces Condimentaires de l'Union Europeenne. The paper quoted one manufacturer: "Most people can tell the difference between tinned carrots and a gourmet pasta sauce."

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