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Dialogue of the deaf

Posted by Richard Saturday, August 21, 2004

Following on from the claims made by Stephen O'Brien about "gold plating", on the basis of a Conservative Party report, and the follow-up by Digby Jones of the CBI – both of whom cited the now famous "abattoir directive" - which started off variously as 12 pages (O’Brien) or about 30 pages (Jones) and ended up respectively as 96 and 92 pages of British legislation – the BBC Today Programme this morning decided to get to the bottom of the mystery of which directive precisely they were talking about.

At least, that was the apparent theme of the piece that was broadcast, incorporating an interview with Stephen O'Brien. But, in fact, there were two conflicting agendas on the go. Stephen Sakur, doing the interview, was trying to show that claims of the damage done by this directive were an "urban myth" – of the same order as "bent bananas" – while O'Brien, in between having to fend off this attack, was trying to substantiate his claim that the damage was caused not by the directive, per se, but by "gold plating".

Neither was right, but in an attempt to prove his case, Sackur called in aid the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers (AIMS), which – he claims – "told us they had no idea which regulation is being talked about". On that slender basis, he told O'Brien that "British abattoirs seem to have been working very happily with this regulation which you claim is one of those strangling British business".

Given that the policy director of AIMS is Norman Bagley, who has spent the last ten years or more fighting against the depredations of the "abattoir directive", this seems hard to credit. O'Brien rightly protested that there had been a "very severe collapse in the number of abattoirs we have in this country", but wrongly attributed the cause to "gold plating".

While fighting off the charge of perpetrating an "urban myth", however, O'Brien introduced his own – which, amazingly, was not challenged by Sackur:

…the pesticide residues which was a commission directive in 2002, building on ones from 1986 and 1990 and that fixes the maximum levels of pesticide residues... has just over 1100 words and the regulation for England and Wales has 27,000 words.
Heard this one before? This is a variation of the “duck egg regulation” myth, which was reproduced in a letter in The Daily Telegraph on 8 June 2002, written by a Mr Varey as follows:

The Ten Commandments required a mere 300 words and the American Declaration of Independence 1,300 words. However, the EU regulations regarding the export of duck eggs require 26,900 words.
This was debunked by Harold Gough, of Herne Bay, Kent, in another letter on 11 June, when he wrote that the letter by Mr Varey:

...updates one that appeared in your own letters page on Oct. 1, 1979, on that occasion with reference to the import of caramel products. Mr Varey has rounded down the number of words to 26,900 from usual figure of 26,911 in this urban myth.

In its best-known form, the story was used in a Mobil Oil syndicated column in 1977, by "Pipeline Pete", who cited the economical length of the Lord's Prayer, the Gettysburg Address and the Declaration of Independence, and commented: "So how come it took the federal government 26,911 words to issue a regulation on the sale of cabbages?" In fact, there was no such regulation, and the directive on caramel was equally imaginary.

An early version of the story appeared in a New England farming journal in 1951, but it is believed to date back to the Second World War. It keeps cropping up, often with that magic pay-off number of 26,911.
This time, however, O’Brien has rounded the figure up to 27,000 words, but myth it still is. In fact, there are some 54 EEC/EU directives relating to pesticide residues, but only three are substantive: Council Directives 86/362/EEC, 86/363/EEC and 90/642/EEC. These are still in force, as amended by the rest. I downloaded the amended versions and compared the total text length with the length of the current UK regulations, implementing the main EU regulations and their amendments. The former came to 8,918 words; the latter 8,673 words.

So, what did the Today programme achieve? Confusion amongst the listeners perhaps, but nothing of any value. It was the dialogue of the deaf.

For those who are interested, the transcript of the piece is posted below.