23 May 2013

Europe pours water on troubled oil

Restaurants will be allowed to serve customers bowls of olive oil to dip their bread into – as the EU ditches plans for stringent new rules amid a storm of protest.

bread and oil (getty)

It struck gloom into the hearts of chefs and confounded customers, after the European Union ruled that restaurants could only serve olive oil in sealed, non-refillable bottles that must be thrown away as soon as they had been used.

EU officials insisted the move was to protect customers from fraud, and improve hygiene, although there were suspicions that it was more about supporting large-scale olive oil producers in countries like Greece and Spain, hard hit by the economic crisis.

Restaurateurs were incensed at the very idea. London chef Yotam Ottolenghi told the Guardian it was ridiculous. “The whole contract between restaurant and customer is based on trust”, he said.

“No-one in their right mind is going to serve a little bottle of olive oil at the table. It doesn’t make sense.”

Small, artisanal producers said the cost of producing tiny individual bottles with EU approved labelling would be prohibitive, while others demanded to know how the whole system would be policed. Would legions of olive oil inspectors roam Europe, seeking out non-regulation jugs of oil?

Even more ludicrously, the Sustainable Restaurant Association pointed out that the ban would only apply to 100 per cent extra virgin olive oil. So if something was added – like salt or garlic – or some kind of inferior grade of oil, restaurants would be free to serve it up as they liked.

David Cameron took time out from discussions between EU leaders in Brussels to condemn the plans, declaring “It shouldn’t even be on the table, to force a pun – so to speak.”

Naturally, the idea triggered a storm of outrage and ridicule on social media sites like Twitter, with such gems as “virgin on the ridiculous”, and suggesting an olive oil theme song – “je ne vinaigrette rien”.

Amid such a widespread backlash, European officials were forced to reconsider. Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolos stuck to his guns over the fraud issue, claiming “we want to avoid consumers being tricked”.

But he admitted that the plan lacked the neccessary support. Instead, he said he wanted to get producers, traders, restaurant owners and diners “round the same table” to come up with a solution.

If that sounds like the dinner party from hell, at least they’ll have something to dip their bread in while they argue over the way forward. Oil’s well that ends well, perhaps.