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Bovine democracy

Posted by Helen Wednesday, March 02, 2005

This morning I spent some time at the BBC Russian Service, explaining to the listeners that the European Union not only has an untransparent and incomprehensible way of setting its budget but it also legislates according to a various plans: five-year, seven-year and ten-year. Probably those listeners will understand what I am talking about. Russians do not need too much explaining of the term democracy deficit.

The legislative process in the EU is a managerial one and cannot be influenced through voting or the normal political process. But, at least, one might think, what with the new, supposedly free-market, Commission and all that chatter about the need for market forces in order to lift the European economy out of its doldrums, we can influence what is produced by the simplest method of all: buying or not buying it.

If you thought that you’d have been wrong. There is only one way that the various panjandrums of the European Union acknowledge as legitimate influence and that is through consultation, which feeds into the regulatory process. That way the consumer or the elector is prevented from making any mistakes.

Take veal, for instance. Most people know what veal is: the meat of the calf. Some people like it and some people do not. Many of those who buy it have strong views on what it should look and taste like as well on the rather more difficult question of how those calves should be kept.

The best way, you might think, of transmitting these views is by buying the sort of veal you like from the butcher you trust. Well, you might. You’d be wrong.

The European Union, in this great vision and under something called Interactive Policy Making, has started a consultation process Towards a European Definition of Veal.

It seems that there is chaos in the veal market, which is not all that big: just 3 countries produce 75 per cent of all the veal, though it is consumed to a greater or lesser degree in all member states.

“Meats sold in the EU market under the denomination 'veal' result from animals produced in different livestock-farming systems. The characteristics in terms of feed, age and weight of the animals at the time of slaughter vary appreciably. Generally speaking, the older the animal becomes, the less milk products it consumes; these are replaced by fibres and cereals, and the weight of the animal increases. In certain cases the milk diet is completely suppressed. The characteristics (colour, texture, flavour...) of the meats obtained, which are closely connected to the method of livestock-farming, change accordingly.”
And so, several member states, or so we are told, have asked for a definition of veal. You, the citizen, can contribute to this undoubtedly expensive process, by filling in a form and telling those who will sift through the data and put together the definition, what you think European veal is or should be really.

You could have gone to the butcher, looked at it, tried it once and decided for yourself, but that is not how the single market operates. It needs definitions. One assumes what is at stake (no puns intended) is the possible subsidy for calf growing or veal production, not the actual consumption of meat.

Next time you read articles about the raging free market philosophy behind agricultural production, and its many ills, think of the process that is leading towards a European definition of veal. And think of it, too, when you hear about those supposedly great reforms of CAP that are making agriculture more market conscious.