Sunday, July 04, 2010

Them eggs

Selling eggs by the pack is going to be banned by the EU. No, selling eggs by the pack isn't going to be banned by the EU. Yes, selling eggs by the pack is going to be banned ... And that's where it currently stands, according to a tiresome little man in the Grocer magazine, writing in The Mail on Sunday.

Unaccustomed as I am to taking instruction and guidance on EU law from The Grocer, I had nevertheless taken little interest in this tedious issue. But even then, I had come to a view and placed myself firmly in the "Euromyth" camp. However, since the Grocer man, by the name of Adam Leyland, still insists that he is right, it is necessary to revisit the issue and do a little more homework.

And here, one is a little worried by his claim to have taken the trouble "to actually read the EU's 75-page draft", specifically because the draft of Regulation 2008/28 of the European Parliament and of the Council "on the provision of food information to consumers" is actually 85 pages. One wonders what he has been reading.

But, with EU law, if you are coming to it cold and really want to know what is going on and what is intended, you don't just read the COM. You read the Commission staff working documents as well (the so-called SEC series). In this case, there are three of them, the most important of which is the 90-page SEC(2008)0092. (This is a little trick you pick up when you have to evaluate EU law for a living.)

Read this, the original proposal and the explanatory notes, and it all becomes perfectly clear (although it does help if you were the technical advisor for the UK egg producers' association for ten years, and then spent four years in the EU parliament as a research director).

The nub of this proposal, it will be seen – and as the text makes perfectly plain – is "recasting of the different horizontal labelling provisions." These, as we all know, deal with "quantitative indications" – ingredients, nutritional standards and the rest. As any fule noes, these do not and cannot affect (without stating specifically) the "vertical" marketing legislation, under which – for instance – the egg regime falls.

It is under the Egg Marketing Regulations (as amended) that the marketing requirements for eggs are set out, and they are not affected by 2008/28. They cannot be unless specifically repealed. And the application of the EMRs is (rightly) confirmed by the EP press office.

However, Leyland calls in aid Andrew Opie, food policy director at the British Retail Consortium and Conservative MEPs such as Vicky Ford. Yeah right. The times I've sat across the table from the BRC, I've concluded I would not ask them for instruction on how to tie my shoe laces.

Good at making money out of shopkeeping, the BRC members might be, but don't ask them about EU law. Mostly, they favour legislation as it messes up the small retailers and gives their supermarket members a competitive advantage. All they generally want to know is how to implement it. And as for Tory MEPs understanding EU law ... you gotta be kidding.

In essence, Leyland had it wrong. The papers got it wrong. And he's still wrong. But then, what do I know? Leyland suggests that I (and any other blogger who disagrees with him) is only an ill-informed "internet blogger" (is there any other sort - internet, that is?). By contrast, he has talked to "people who actually know what they are talking about." And they MUST be right.

UPDATE: Iain Dale argues that Leyland should be believed. It was the widely respected Grocer magazine, which first printed the story about the EU wanting to ban selling products by numbers, he writes. Then enjoining us to read the MoS article, he tells us: "This is not written by a tabloid journalist or a partisan blogger. It's written by the editor of The Grocer. Think on that."

From an analytical perspective, what you see here is a fascinating illustration of the power of prestige. It is not very often one sees such a good example. The argument Leyland offers is poor, and involves, inter alia, an "appeal to authority". Dale buys it because, in his eyes, the editor of the Grocer has "prestige".

Note, in the context, the interesting use of the descriptor: "widely respected". If it is thus, then it has prestige and can be believed. Unfortunately, those lesser mortals and institutions without "prestige" can be ignored. The quality and depth of argument is irrelevant. It is not what is said that matters - it is who says it.

Comment: a Euromyth bites the dust