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The Ministry of Taste

The EU, Restaurants and Olive Oil

by BINOY KAMPMARK

They do themselves no favours. Like a hulking institution that has never seen the light of day lest it provide a degree of transparency, the cocooned individuals of the European Commission have decided to meddle in the restaurant trade. The mantra is always the same: quality and hygiene. From January 1, 2014, eateries will be prohibited from serving oil to diners in small jugs or dipping bowls. The nightmarish pre-sealed and non-re-usable bottles will take their place, an aesthetic monstrosity that will remind consumers who, let alone what, is really in charge.

Killing the romance and deliciousness of eating is not something the EU should be dabbling in, given its poor record on secret and often inscrutable governance. There are enough food fascists in the restaurant trade without having management fascists lord over the food trade. But here, EU officials will assure those across countries that the measure is a noble one – the regulation is coming about as a measure to improve hygiene and quality. (As if the best food is made in a laboratory.)

The proposals were supported by 15 out of 27 EU member governments, including Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal. The propagandists were in full swing on the soap boxes. “The fact that the EU is the world’s major producer of olive oil – for up to 70 percent of the olive oil globally – perhaps this is even more than just a good consumer story for European citizens,” suggested commission spokesman Oliver Drewes (Reuters, May 18). Yes, this inane measure is supposedly good for the consumer.

Similarly, Nunzia de Gerolamo suggested that these measures were part of an effort to impose greater clarity on the market in terms of the oil’s origins. “With the EU’s green light for these new rules calling for more labelling transparency for the olive oil it will finally be able to more easily verify the oil’s characteristics and origins” (The Telegraph, May 18). Be wary of officials who dictate gastronomic quality to the public, those pygmies of the ministry of taste.

The class of persons most likely to be thrilled by this will be the bureaucrat inductees who take over the task of monitoring how the ban will be enforced. Individual countries will no doubt have their own measures of creating another layer of surveillance and accountability. And the consumers will be told it is all being done for their benefit. Then again, that strategy remains the old hoary chestnut of any object of paternalism. They, of course, “know better”.

Naturally, costs will go up for those in the restaurant business keen to find their suppliers. The spokesman for Britain’s Department of Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (Defra) welcomed “some of the new rules on improved labelling” but not “this ban as it will likely lead to unnecessary waste and place added burdens on businesses” (The Telegraph, May 18). Julia Garnier of up-market Chez Julien, a Parisian restaurant operating in London since 1780, suggested that the bottles would be an aesthetic aberration and “cost restaurants too much to put in place” (The Telegraph, May 18).

Chez Julien uses a process familiar with most restaurant owners who use olive oil on tables for customers to use: glass containers filled with oil and vinegar that stem from large jugs on site. That practice will cease once the regulations are implemented. “Quality” will trump romance; the food managers have been allowed to win, though customers just might be saved by the ingenuity of those in the restaurant trade. Well, hope springs eternal.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com