No. Honest. I’ve checked the date, and it’s May 19th (as I write), not All Fools’ Day (except in Brussels, where it’s All Fools’ Day all the time). It really does seem to be true that the EU wants to ban olive oil from restaurant tables, unless it’s served in individual sealed containers carrying mandatory information and declarations. Bizarrely, a restaurant will be able to serve house wine in a decanter — or water in a jug — with no provenance at all. But not olive oil.
Tory MEP Martin Callanan rightly asks whether the EU has nothing better to do than to instigate this ban. No government or legislature should be interfering in this way in the fine grain of our daily lives, and seeking to regulate the minutiae of the dining table. One of the great problems of our age is the hubristic assumption by governments of all stripes that they can legislate for anything at all that they happen to think is a good idea, without considering whether this is a legitimate area for state action.
But there are very substantial reasons for opposing this ban — æsthetic, environmental, competitive, public health — in addition to a general objection to the NannyState.
The new packs will deliver some prescribed quantity, which will tend to lead to waste. A great deal more packaging will be used. And eventually go to landfill. It is ironic that when some MEPs are campaigning against bottled water, to save packaging waste, we should be mandating individual bottles for olive oil. And clearly the price will be higher to cover the additional packaging.
Some restaurants will reluctantly switch to the pre-pack olive oil. Others will conclude that they can go without, and that customers can make do with butter. A healthy option will be quite literally taken off the table. I will particularly regret this, as I’ve recently got into the habit of dunking my bread in oil (it comes of having an Italian staffer). (Apologies to dairy farmers, by the way, but I think olive oil probably is healthier than butter). Any benefits to European producers by elimination cheaper substitutes will be offset by an overall reduction in use. And given that fraudsters having little difficulty in producing counterfeit cigarettes, I expect counterfeit pre-pack olive oil to be the next big thing.
In terms of competition, pre-pack olive oil will be a boon to the large-scale industrial food industry, but a barrier to entry for smaller or artisanal producers. So on average, quality will go down. Think of the serious restaurateur who loves to discover particular vineyards for his vin de maison, and particular olive oil producers. He can keep buying and serving the wine, but his special olive oil will not be available pre-packed. Like so much EU regulation, this ban will create barriers to entry which will support big corporations, but will militate against new, small and innovative suppliers.
Then there is the æsthetic issue. I’ve been in many restaurants where the waiter serves olive oil, from an elegant bottle with a special stopper, allowing oil out and air in. Perhaps the bottle also has herbs in it, flavouring the oil. He pours it with a swagger almost as a sommelier would pour wine. The unctuous greeny-yellow liquid sits effulgent in its porcelain saucer, with delicious drifting aromas of the warm south. That’s part of the dining experience.
And what shall we get instead, courtesy of Brussels? Wretched little plastic bottles (it’s sure to be plastic) with the EU’s mandatory product information, for all the world like a sachet of Heinz tomato sauce in a cheap café. It cheapens and devalues the dining experience.
So why are they doing this? To protect us, the consumers, from the risk that dishonest restaurateurs might serve cheaper oil. Did we ask to be protected? Do they think we can’t tell the difference between good olive oil and bad oil? Can’t they leave it to the market? If I go to a restaurant and I’m served rubbish, I simply won’t go back.
In fact the restaurants in the European parliament itself routinely offer a condiment set on the tables that includes salt, pepper, vinegar and olive oil — and I often use it to dunk my bread. I wonder if they’ll obey the new rules as well.
It is time for restaurateurs and diners to rise up and say “Enough is enough! Up with this we will not put!”. As a general principle, I (and UKIP) support the rule of law. But this is a step too far. It brings the law into disrepute, and hits us where it hurts. In our stomachs. The only response is open defiance. I shall make a point of patronising any restaurants that stand by free olive oil, properly served.