How many lumps are allowed in a sauce before it can be considered a vegetable? This question-to be considered by a European Union committee on January 10th - may sound absurd. But trade worth hundreds of millions of euros rests on the answer.
The reason: whereas the EU tariff on imported sauce is only 20%, the tariff on an imported vegetable is 288%. Protectionists in the EU-mainly vegetable producers from the south-fear that vegetables may sneak into Europe disguised as tinned sauces. They have argued that, if a sauce is more than 20% made up of lumps of fruit or vegetable, it should be considered a vegetable. That hits such culinary delights as Unilever's Chicken Tonight, Heinz's Teletubbies pasta in sauce and Dolmio's Pasta Gusto.
Of course any multinational food producer worth its sauce has already shifted production to within the EU so as to get round the tariffs. The euro200m of sauce that EU countries still import is thus mainly lump-free. But other sauce markets now apply the lump test too, and their tariffs hit about half of the EU's annual sauce exports of around euro244m.
Big food producers such as Mars, Unilever and Nestlé were so irritated by these rules that they took a case against the EU to the World Customs Organisation. But, although the ruling went against the EU, there is no provision for sanctions. The EU has, however, graciously agreed to reconsider its rules. The European Commission is proposing raising the lump threshold to 30%. Still too low, scream the food companies, arguing-reasonably enough-that consumer perception should be the test; and that most people can tell the difference between a turnip and a tin of Teletubbies pasta in sauce. But the EU seems unlikely to change its mind. So the food companies may just have to lump it.