The European cucumber-regulation

The straight and narrow

Thanks to the European Union, the cucumber has become a symbol of bureaucratic officiousness. It has been more than 30 years since the EU adopted Regulation (EEC) No. 1677/88, in which the features of cucumbers became part of European law.

(Image: Colourbox)

On five pages of text, the document detailed those characteristics that allowed cucumbers to be classified by grade and category – based on their shape, coloring and the quality of their skin. Cucumbers aspiring to belong to the “Extra” class had to be “practically straight” while the regulation allowed their “Class 1” counterparts a maximum curvature of 10 millimeters per 10 centimeters of length – the criteria required to earn the rating “reasonably well shaped.” Twenty millimeters of curvature was the maximum prescribed for “Class 2” cucumbers. Even more crooked cucumbers were rejected for sale, despite tasting exactly the same.

The regulation was originally suggested by trade associations and the member states’ ministers of agriculture. And it was genuinely well-intentioned. The idea was to create a standard that guaranteed consistent product qualities for dealers, food producers and consumers across Europe. Greengrocers would no longer have to examine every single cucumber by hand; they could rely on getting a specific profile of goods. Additionally, the straight cucumbers were easier to package and transport because, being of similar sizes and shapes, they fitted better in standard boxes. In other words, dealers and freight forwarding companies also had a lot to gain.

Of course, the best of intentions does not automatically mean the best result. Decried as patronizing and ridiculously intrusive, the cucumber regulation came to epitomize the pedantic character of some EU policies: rather than being keyed to core qualities such as a product’s taste or flavor, it was stubbornly and exclusively based on external characteristics. As a result of the regulation, the cucumbers in almost all of Europe’s major supermarkets came to resemble clones. Non-compliant specimens were discarded and destroyed for the sole reason that they had the wrong shape – an outrageous waste of good food.

For this reason the regulation was promptly revoked in 2009, although more than half of the member states would have liked it retained. Germany’s federation of farmers went so far as to warn of bargain bins in supermarkets containing a jumble of bizarre-looking vegetables. But European vegetable growers still apply the regulation today. It had become normal practice to do so.

(Bild: Getty Images / Stuart Minzey)

What is a norm?
The cucumber regulation is an example of standardization that some might consider excessive. International norms – in this case, comparable and shared minimum requirements – are not only of crucial importance for free international trade; they also help companies improve their products. Some norms govern work processes and stipulate standards that support quality management – standards that are consistent across different products and industries. However, ISO standards do not have the force of law; they encourage voluntary undertakings by companies to comply with specific guidelines. That said, governments occasionally declare them to be legally binding.

Why do we need norms and standards?
A week has seven days and begins on a Monday. Icons on fabric care labels are the same worldwide and therefore universally understood. Containers from Asia fit on European cargo ships and trains. We can refuel our cars at gas pumps in neighboring countries as well. Standards are ubiquitous features of our everyday lives, simplifying it in many ways. Their scope can extend to individual nations, the EU and the entire planet. To date, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has published almost 23,000 standards, most of which derive from European practices.

ISO standards are particularly important for international and intercontinental trade. With so many interfaces along supply chains, consistency is crucial to ensuring compatibility. For this reason standards play a major role in the logistics industry. But the EU even specifies the criteria for a “normal” Naples-style pizza: it must be no more than 4 millimeters thick in the middle and have a diameter of 35 centimeters or less.

How are standards created?
The first step in defining any ISO standard is to establish its usefulness and detail its purpose. For the most part such initiatives originate in the world of commerce. A request is submitted to a national standards organization which forwards it to the ISO. An international team of experts then develops a standard which is appraised and assessed by all ISO members. In addition to the ISO, national standards organizations also institute new norms, most of which originate in the private sector. This practice has often proven contentious.

How long have international standards existed?
The need for standards increased significantly from the middle of the nineteenth century. Early industrialization, inventions such as telegraphy, and steam boat travel between Europe and America made international cooperation faster and cheaper, but also required simplified processes and commitments on which all parties could agree. For more than 70 years, the International Organization for Standardization has now been developing standards for goods and services, with the aim of ensuring consistency around the world. Located in Geneva, this global body coordinates the work of the standards organizations in 161 countries.

A special set of rules exists to define the responsibilities of sellers and buyers engaging in international trade. Known as Incoterms®, they are published by the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) and spell out which party bears which risks, responsibilities and costs. In the context of normal commercial practice, ten obligations each are prescribed for the sellers and buyers. These govern document procurement, transport and/or insurance agreements, and the location and method of delivery by the seller etc. In September 2019 the ICC published a new version of the Incoterms® which will go into effect on January 1, 2020. A summary of the key points can be found at

Miriam Holzapfel is a cultural scientist, author and editor for the Atlas.

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