A week has passed since new legislation was introduced authorizing big fines on producers, wholesalers and retailers of fruit and vegetables who do not supply proper information about the origin of their produce. Fines from 550 euros to as much as 15,500 euros can be imposed on anyone not complying with the regulations governing labeling in the European Union. The law stipulates that labels—both for packaged and for loose produce—must indicate the price, the origin, the name of the variety and the quality category (1 for the best fruit and vegetables, 2 for slightly lower quality, and 3 if the produce is damaged by adverse weather).
Until recently, greengrocers and market stalls were less than upfront in their product labeling. At the market, for example, price labels often stated ‘locally-grown’ even though the produce came from elsewhere in Italy—or even from other countries. This dishonest practice was common, and while certainly not showing retailers in a good light, it also opened the way for other types of sharp practice. Some of these swindles seem to still be fairly widespread: there were reports until a few days ago of large quantities of produce being confiscated—it had been declared Italian but was in fact foreign. Although Italy produces a large amount of fruit and vegetables—of excellent quality and in a wide range of different varieties—our country continues to import more than 2 billion kilograms of fruit and vegetables every year. Once this produce has entered the country, it often changes or loses its identity.
The fear of being fined should solve quite a few problems, at least for the retail trade. A cursory check suggests that all—or at least most—sellers are now displaying full labels. It is very informative to go round the market now: you learn to recognize different varieties of apple, you learn that in February grapes may come from South Africa, that some oranges are more expensive because they are the highly regarded Sicilian blood oranges or others are so expensive because they have traveled further. Shopping at the market had become something for real experts, people who had learned old secrets, who were authorities on quality, varieties and the times of year for different produce. The labels now guide consumers, even the less well-informed, who are now not so likely to pay over the odds for poor quality artichokes, just because they are not familiar with what to look out for. You just need to check the category on the label: customers will make fewer mistakes, become better educated and retailers will have to be more honest.
Even though the fines are intended to deter dishonest operators, they will also highlight where produce comes from and when it is grown, providing a check on traceability. This is not only a responsibility producers owe to consumers, but could also prove to be a support for local agricultural economies.
Native varieties are restricted to particular seasons and risk disappearing. They face competition from other varieties which are available all the year round, are visually attractive with standard weights and shapes, but lack flavor. Now native varieties can bounce back. Less flavorsome Dutch produce, selected for export since it keeps well during transit, can now be immediately identified. Taste and seasonal availability will once again become factors determining what fruit and vegetables are bought. The pleasure of being able to favor local products has beneficial spin-offs: it discourages the unnecessary transport of goods, with its accompanying waste of resources, fuel and tires, not to mention roads jammed with trucks belching out polluting black fumes.
What is more, consumers will be able to influence prices to a greater extent if they are better informed about the quality and seasonal availability of the goods they are buying, without middlemen pocketing unjustifiable profits. The recent controversies about expensive fruit and vegetables—extensively debated in superficial and confusing fashion on television —are a real lesson.
First printed in La Stampa on Feb. 23 2003
Adapted by Ronnie Richards