Rule on Serving Olive Oil Stirs Ridicule and Anger in Europe

By   Published: May 23, 2013

BRUSSELS — With the European economy reeling from austerity and joblessness, the European Union took time last week to focus on something rather smaller in scale: it approved a measure that would ban restaurants from serving olive oil in cruets or dipping bowls.

The reaction was severe. Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands condemned the measure, calling it “too bizarre for words” and not at all green.

Criticism was particularly harsh in Britain, often the first among critics of the European Union’s reach.

The olive oil rule was “exactly the sort of area that the European Union needs to get right out of, in my view,” Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain said Wednesday after a meeting of the bloc’s leaders in Brussels. “It shouldn’t even be on the table,” he said, immediately begging forgiveness for the wordplay.

On Thursday, the European Commission announced in a hastily called news conference that the measure, meant to take effect on Jan. 1, would be rescinded. Yet the invective continued to flow.

“This was a ridiculous and draconian idea that should never have gone so far,” said Martin Callanan, a member of the European Parliament for Britain’s Conservative Party. “Rather than tackling a double-dip recession, the commission is worried about double-dipped bread.”

In fact, the issue is not as small as it may seem. Olive oil is big business in Europe, not just in sales — the bloc is the world’s largest producer, with up to 70 percent of the global market — but in reputation as well.

The measure, which would have required that restaurants serve olive oil in sealed, clearly labeled and nonreusable containers, was meant to guarantee hygiene, according to the European Commission, the union’s executive body, which originally drafted the rules. It said the labeling would ensure the quality and authenticity of olive oils and also offer suppliers an opportunity to promote brand awareness, backers said. And the measure stood to benefit European olive growers, mostly clustered around the Mediterranean, in some of the countries hardest hit by the crisis in the euro zone.

Fifteen of the union’s 27 governments supported the rule, including the major producers, Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal. Portugal has had similar measures in place since 2005.

But governments in the non-olive-producing north, including Germany, were opposed. Britain abstained.

Inevitably, perhaps, the affair inspired a gusher of groan-worthy wordplay. On Twitter, posters remade song titles in honor of the debacle, like “Ban on the Run,” “Olive and let die” and “Je ne vinaigrette rien.”

Even though some European officials said the initiative had been killed, the European agriculture commissioner, Dacian Ciolos, insisted Thursday that ways still must be found to ensure that restaurantgoers know what they are drizzling.

In certain restaurants, he said, “you will find a bottle labeled with a certain type of olive oil, but once the bottle is empty it’s topped up with other oil.”

And farmers, who constitute a powerful lobby in Europe, suggested that they would fight on. “It is totally unacceptable that the commission has done a complete U-turn and has succumbed to political pressure like this,” said Pekka Pesonen, the secretary general of Copa-Cogeca, a farmers’ lobbying group.       Harvey Morris contributed reporting from London.

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