A funny story, except it's complete nonsense, see below.
While I was away, news reached me of a curious story doing the rounds, alleging that “nutty EU officials” were planning to ban Bombay mix – a snack made of dried Indian noodles, chickpeas, lentils and peanuts – on the politically correct grounds that it should now be called Mumbai mix, in deference to that Indian city’s name change.
I must admit, the story did not seem that likely – the EU is strict and pernickety about food labelling when it comes to things like health claims (alcoholic drinks cannot claim to be good for you, for example), additives and where fresh foods come from (meat labels must show where an animal was raised, and where it was slaughtered). The EU is strict in defending European designated geographical places of origin (so Parma ham must come from Parma, and Feta cheese must come from Greece, for example).
But this story claimed the EU was acting to avoid offending the people of India. That did not quite make sense. As far as I knew, people in Mumbai call that city Mumbai, but when it comes to certain traditional names, like the Bombay High Court, they still use Bombay.
So I called a couple of people at the Commission, who are paid to know about things like this. Not only did they know nothing about it, they could not even think of a directive that would let them do this. I called diplomats working in the same field, and drew a blank.
So where did the story start? The answer, I found, was with a small regional news agency in the south of England (I shall not name it, to avoid getting into messy legal territory). Anyway, it is enough to say that I called them up, and ended up speaking to their news editor, who cheerfully admitted the story was his idea (though he gave it to one of his reporters to write up).
Help me out here, I asked him. Is this a Commission proposal, or does this come from the European Parliament? Is it a directive working its way through the Council of Ministers? He had no answer. The story, he explained, came from a mate of his at the Home Office, who had heard it being talked about.
Had he tried to pin it down, and found any piece of paper discussing the change? Had he found a manufacturer who had been advised to alter a product name?
He sounded impatient with me at this point. Look, he said, this is just meant to be funny for the tabloids.
I tried a last question. Given that his news agency was running the story as an established fact, had he put it to the Commission at all? Oh, you know what it’s like getting an answer out of Brussels, he said. I did ask the reporter to put in a call.
So in other words, you have no evidence that this story is true at all, I concluded. Look, it’s just something light, he said, almost pleadingly.
And so we left it. But not before I checked his news agency’s version. It quoted the shadow Europe minister, Graham Brady, denouncing the plan, though he did have the good sense to begin his quote with: “If this is true”. The piece quoted a local Asian newsagent, Khalid Ahmed, calling the plan crazy, and saying no-one was offended by the name. It also stated, as fact, that a decision on the plan was to be made final by the “end of the year”.
For good measure, the original local agency news copy said that: “The fussy bureaucrats, which in the past have ruled that bananas and cucumbers must be straight and tried to outlaw the sale of mushy peas, decided to look into the naming of the popular snack after officials complained that Bombay is officially called Mumbai.”
Now, even the most ardent British Eurosceptics know that the straight bananas and straight cucumbers line is simply untrue. The stories were generated by common rules on classes of fruit and vegetables. The best quality, Class I, have to follow certain rules, and for cucumbers, being straight is considered a desirable attribute (customers like them straight, and you get more in a box).
Bent cucumbers are not banned, they just count as a lesser class of vegetable, and so are usually sold for a lower price. The same goes for bananas, which are less valuable if they are excessively curved. In both cases, it was industry and national governments that asked for EU wide standards, to ease pan-European trade.
The mushy pea story comes from a directive banning colourings in prepared and frozen vegetables. Tinned mushy peas are covered by a special exemption, and can be dyed green, but frozen peas are not allowed to be dyed. This is the European Commission’s own version of the tale.
None of which is to say the EU does not go in for excessive red tape and regulation. It is just that if you are going to attack Brussels, you lose a lot of credibility – or you should – if you simply make it up.
So what happened with the cobblers about Bombay mix?
Well, it turned up in The Sun, that’s what, as well as in The Mirror. And the next day – in a weird irony of globalisation – it turned up in the Hindustan Times, complete with digs about bent bananas and cucumbers.
Was it true? I have no evidence that it was – though I should add the caveat that the EU is a big machine, with lots of committees and officials, so it is very hard to prove that something was never suggested in any setting.
But do I think that is what happened with this story? No. I think this was one of those Brussels-bashing stories that – for a good chunk of the British press – was simply too good to check. And given that the Commission does not sue, why should the tabloids care?
Posted by David Rennie at 20 Jul 06 17:24
blogs.telegraph.co.uk/foreign...july06/mix.htm (external - login to view)