Eggscerable reporting, or ‘no, the EU won’t ban eggs by the dozen’

The latest insane euromyth, as faithfully invented by the Daily Mail, is that the EU is planning to ban the sale of eggs by the dozen or half-dozen. As usual, the Littlejohn Rule applies here: if the story sounds like something you “really couldn’t make up” (thanks, Mr Dale), then somebody doubtless has made it up.

The main thrust of the Daily Mail’s story is that under proposed EU legislation, it will be illegal to print “six eggs” on a box of six eggs. Instead, the quantity of eggage will have to be listed solely in kilogrammes. This is simply – and really really obviously – false, and if you believe it then you’re doubtless someone who’s checked whether the word ‘gullible’ is really in the dictionary.

Here’s the actual legislation, proposed by the European Parliament. The quote that the press have misunderstood (or, more likely, lied about) is:

1. The net quantity of a food shall be expressed, using litres, centilitres, millilitres, kilograms or grams, as appropriate:
(a) in units of liquid in the case of liquids within the meaning of Council Directive 85/339/EEC of 27 June 1985 on containers of liquids for human consumption ;
(b) in units of mass in the case of other products.

In other words, all food that is sold in the EU will need to list either its volume (for liquids) or its mass (for solids) in metric units on the pack. Note the absence of anything banning the use of other indicators on the pack, such as “number of eggs”, “mass in pounds”, “number of moles of hydrogen atoms in the packet”, etc. Anyone who wishes to do so can advertise any or all of the above, as long as the metric unit of volume or mass is clearly marked. See: a pint of milk.

So the more outlandish claim, that the legislation would ban the sale of eggs in packs labelled as ‘six’ or ’12’, is obvious, total nonsense.

The only thing substantiating the piece at all is the Mail’s quote from an unnamed source at the UK’s Food Standards Agency, “Retailers would not be allowed to put ‘Six eggs’ on the front of the box.“. Whether the Mail has grossly misquoted the FSA spokesman, or whether the FSA spokesman is an idiot, is not clear. Either way, the quote is wrong.

A more sensible criticism of the proposed rule comes from The Devil’s Knife – that the change would cost food packagers money for very little benefit, wasting everyone’s time and resources:

Well, I would imagine that selling a 500g box of eggs that does not, in fact, contain 500g of produce is illegal under Trading Standards. So now the egg producers are going to have to weigh each and every box, and stamp the exact weight on each box. Not only will they have to buy the stamping equipment (because you can bet your bottom dollar that just writing the weight on is not legal: they even have to stamp each individual egg now, for fuck’s sake) but it is also labour-intensive.

Well, this would be true, except that eggs are already graded by weight – e.g. a ‘large’ egg weighs 63-73g – which requires them to be weighed. And under EU labelling rules, positive errors are allowed on packaging, as are negative errors of 3% (for a package that weighs 300-500g, like six large eggs).

So if the new rules do come in, an egg producer who wished to comply with them at zero cost could just add ‘weight 385g’ to all their boxes of large eggs, and otherwise carry on as before.

Meanwhile, an egg producer who wanted to emphasise the fact that their large eggs were super-large could put the actual weight if they chose, based on the grading by weight that they would have done anyway. Obviously, this would require more complicated software for labelling; whether the producer views it as worthwhile or not depends on whether they reckon it’ll help them make money. Like, erm, most commercial decisions…

Update: John Harrison of Allotment.co.uk has helpfully clarified the (current and not planned to change) rules for small producers in comments:

It’s currently perfectly legal to engage in farm gate sales (or front door sales for backgarden chicken keepers) so long as you do not grade the eggs and provide a use-by date.

This means the box sold at the door of six eggs will be various sizes, which is actually quite useful when cooking. Some things a small egg is perfect for and you can hardly use ‘half a large egg’. The useby date is generally just a matter of adding 30 days to the laid date.

Home producers do not need to stamp the eggs etc. It’s when you supply shops etc that the weight of regulation comes in.

12 thoughts on “Eggscerable reporting, or ‘no, the EU won’t ban eggs by the dozen’”

  1. Well, yes, you're right. They will have to put a weight on each box. And yes eggs are graded by weight already. Thats all fine and dandy for the mega producers, the battery farms. They have grading/weighing facilities. No skin off their nose. Just add a printed weight to the box. Job done.

    However, what about small producers? The farmers, small holders who keep chickens, often in free range or organic conditions? They sell their eggs either as they come, or grade them by eye. What are they going to do? They don't have huge production facilities, and technology. Why should they be put out of business? And for what? Do you really think it makes a jot of difference whether a box of six eggs is X grammes or Y grammes. Do you think people are that stupid that they can't look at the eggs, check the size, and decide whether or not thats enough egg for their soldiers or not? Why must we all be treated like idiots?

    Who exactly is being done down here? Is there a queue of people outside Tradings Standards complaining about the eggs they bought? Or (as I suspect) has there been not one complaint about the weight of a box of eggs EVER?

  2. Perhaps the small producers should do what small producers over the channel always do – ignore the red tape and carry on as normal – seeling over the fence or down at the farmers' market, with a degree of caveat emptore recognised on both sides. What is it with the British that compels them to comply with every jot and tittle of the UK's obsessive "gold plating" of EU regs? Has Nelson's sensible "blind eye" approach been completely abandoned?

    Nigel at Teacraft

  3. I've particularly enjoyed all the "it's just like when they banned straight bananas!" comments. Because they're right – it's *exactly* like when they banned straight bananas (albeit not for the reasons they might think…)

    Jim – First, as John points out, eggs are *already* required to be weighed, which means that the only change required is one of packaging, not process – if a farmer is going to be put out of business because he has to update his packaging, he was probably going out of business anyway.

    Second, this is not about the EU treating consumers as idiots, it's about preventing unscrupulous producers (small or large) from defrauding consumers, as well as trying to improve product standards EU-wide (thus reducing costs for the cross-border egg trade).

    Third, if you read the actual legislation, you'll see that this is actually an attempt to *reduce* the burden of *existing* regulations (something tells me you have no clue about what the current regulatory situation is) – in this case, removing existing requirements to list insane details on egg (and other) packagaging, instead boiling it down to the basics. i.e. (in this case) weight, as one handy, universally-understood measure. And, at the same time, reducing costs for producers – as they'll no longer have to comply with all the existing requirements.

    In short: You're complaining about deregulation – exactly what you seem to be calling for.

  4. Thats all fine and dandy for the mega producers, the battery farms

    in context, "mega producers" and "battery farms" means "anyone who has more than 50 hens or sells eggs other than at the farm gate".

    Why should they be put out of business?

    Even Eddie Grundy is probably capable of putting an egg box on some scales and weighing it.

  5. by the way, has there ever been anyone who has picked up a box of six eggs and thought "how many eggs are in this box? Better read the label I suppose. Ah yes, 'six eggs' I thought there might be seven or perhaps twelve eggs contained in these six egg-shaped bumps". While the weight of egg protein in the package is actually potentially a useful thing to know, the words "six eggs" are pretty obviously totally superfluous to anyone who knows what an egg is and how to count.

  6. As far as I am aware, it is a requirement for any business producing and selling eggs, irrespective of the quantity, to weigh and grade them. If they are not already doing this, they are already breaking the law.

  7. It's currently perfectly legal to engage in farm gate sales (or front door sales for backgarden chicken keepers) so long as you do not grade the eggs and provide a use-by date.
    This means the box sold at the door of six eggs will be various sizes, which is actually quite useful when cooking. Some things a small egg is perfect for and you can hardly use 'half a large egg'
    The useby date is generally just a matter of adding 30 days to the laid date.
    Home producers do not need to stamp the eggs etc. It's when you supply shops etc that the weight of regulation comes in.
    This seems very sensible to me – recognises the difference between home grown and a business and it recognises the risk. If my 6 eggs are bad, not a huge thing but commercial egg producers with 5 or 50 thousand hens can cause a lot of harm so protective regulation makes sense.
    Thanks for a clear explanation of the EU proposal – I've been asked for some comment on this already and found you whilst researching.
    John

  8. Thanks so much for leaving pertinent text out.

    The expression of the net quantity for certain specified foods in a different manner than the one described in paragraph 1 may be established by the Commission. Those measures designed to amend the non-essential elements of this Regulation by supplementing it, shall be adopted in accordance with the regulatory procedure with scrutiny referred to in Article 49(3).

    Now if the Maily Dail was wrong, then why does this text from the "legislation" imply that there cannot be any other forms of measurement other than those established by the Politburo Commission?

  9. No: that means that the Commission can, if it wishes, decree that the *primary* way of expressing the quantity of a particular type of food should be in units, or ml, or centimetres, or whatever else it thinks is sensible, rather than the standard of ml for liquids and grammes for solids.

    It doesn't have any impact at all on whatever else you want to put on the label, whether that's "6 eggs", "four ounces of eggs", "300ml of egg goo" or "if you buy these eggs then we'll punch a mad xenophobic conspiracy theorist in the nose".

    The reason the text 'implies' to you that there can't be any other forms of measurement is because you're a mad xenophobic conspiracy theorist.

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