Richard North, 03/11/2013  

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This week, a Telegraph editorial tells us, "we learnt that Brussels wants to harmonise the volume of lavatory flushes around the European Union; it has also been implicated in Whitehall attempts to change the acceptable level of sugar in jam".

Yet this first claim is simply not true. The EU has no plans to standardise toilets – simply it has introduced criteria under which Member States can award Ecolabel status to such products.  As the European Commission says, the EU Ecolabel is a voluntary scheme established "to encourage manufacturers to produce goods and services that are environmentally friendlier".

The jam story, however, is even more bizarre, spanning as it does the period from February last year to this date, presenting a picture of almost total confusion overlaid by a fog of incomprehension. With not a single national newspaper getting anywhere near getting the story right, it provides a perfect illustration of the legacy media's inability to report in regulatory matters, which only now can be fully told.

At the beginning, in February 2012, we find the story breaking in the likes of the Daily Mail with a complaint from Michelle "Clippy" McKenna, a businesswoman who had been marketing a range Bramley apple-based jams from her home in Sale near Manchester since 2010.

Under the headline, "Preserve maker in a pickle after EU jobsworths tell her apple spread doesn't qualify", we learn that, "Strict EU rules on food labelling have left a preserve maker in a quandary over what to call its British Bramley apples products".

The issue here is that, because the ingredient ratios of Ms McKenna's apple-based range of products did not conform with the strict requirements of the Jam and Similar Products Regulations 2003, containing 53 percent sugar instead of a requisite 60 percent, she was not entitled to call her products "jam".

However, her products did not qualify as fruit spread, conserve or reduced sugar jam, leaving her in a "real quandary" as to what to call her products (see YouTube here). Perplexed, she noted that: "In France and Germany they've gone it alone and reduced the limit to 55 percent", although that level would not help her and she thus concluded: "The laws need to be harmonised across Europe". 

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Therein was the makings of a classic EU "red tape" story, as the British regulations were based on EU's Council Directive 2001/113/EC. And so it was picked up by the Telegraph and others, allowing McKenna's partner, Paul Gorman, to declare, "It is absolutely crazy. It is a no man's land. These sorts of nonsense laws that are out there just need to be sorted out".

Stepping back from this, one should note that the directive actually recognised this problem, specifically allowing in Recital 6 account to be taken of "existing national traditions in the making of fruit jams, jellies and marmalades and sweetened chestnut purée", conceding that it was "necessary to maintain existing national regulations authorising the marketing of such products with a reduced sugar content".

By 26 August 2012, though, The Sun proclaimed what seemed to be the end of the story, claiming an "exclusive", and parading the banner headline: "EU backs down over Clippy's apple preserve". Clippy McKenna, had won a battle with EU chiefs for the right to call her fruit preserve "jam", after "Barmy Brussels bureaucrats ruled her apple spread did not contain enough sugar to use that label".

The cause of celebration was identified in the Food Manufacturer magazine, which had Clippy McKenna and Paul Gorman claiming victory after DEFRA had announced plans to launch a consultation on changing labelling rules.

Nevertheless, in December, this did not stop Clippy confronting business minister Vince Cable in a televised ITV News Business Club. In what was described as "a health and safety row over jam", she vented her frustrations that she was still, eighteen months on, stuck in a tangle with government officials over the sugar content of her product – hardly true, since DEFRA had already committed to a consultation.

In font of the ITV cameras, Dr Cable had said he and colleagues were doing what they can to stop some of the "sillier things" that come out of Brussels and, by March 2013, there seemed to be some more movement, allowing the national papers to pitch in. The Telegraph had Christopher Hope, the senior political correspondent, proclaiming that "ridiculous" EU jam laws were to be "cut back by Vince Cable in a "boost" for Britain's jam makers.

The Express (below) took its usual lurid EU-baiting line, with: "EU in a jam over its crazy rules on preserves", telling us, "Barmy EU regulations which say that jam cannot be labelled 'jam' if it does not contain enough sugar are to be scrapped by ministers, it emerged yesterday".

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The europhile Independent, on the other hand, headlined, "When is jam not a jam? When the EU says it should be a fruit spread", while the Guardian intoned that Vince Cable was seeking "to clear jam over EU ruling on fruit preserves", noting the constraints of over-interpretation of EU rules through "gold plating".

The Manchester Evening News, however, announced a clear-cut victory (below). After taking her battle to Whitehall, we were told, Clippy had "managed to get the government to help her and other cooks out of a sticky situation".

This triggered some priceless comments from business minister Vince Cable, who had met Clippy with senior civil servants in December, and "vowed to review regulations regarding food". Mr Cable is recorded as saying he would sweep away the restrictions and take a common-sense approach to labelling, and was thus allowed to say:
This is exactly the sort of ridiculous red tape that we want to do away with. Thanks to people like Clippy and our Red Tape Challenge campaign, we are. Of course, consumers need to know that the product they’re buying is what it says on the label. But as Clippy herself says, this looks like jam, smells like jam and tastes like jam – the only thing stopping it being called jam is some outdated rules.
Before going any further, let us just remind ourselves of what is happening here. Ms McKenna is producing a niche product which, because apples have a high citric and malic acid content, naturally requires less added sugar than normal jam, thereby exposing an unforeseen gap in the current set of regulations. Thus, she has sought and is about to get a minor amendment to the regulations, permitting an apple-based produced to be sold as jam, despite its reduced sugar content. 

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But this relatively simple process had now entered the political realm, allowing Cable, in full hyperbolic flight, to declare: "We want to sweep away unnecessary bureaucracy like this which is costing business time and money and stopping them doing what they should be doing: creating jobs, boosting the economy and in some cases, making jam".

Wearily, the European Commission noted that many of the reports had failed to explain that the directive gave member states the option to apply for an exemption to reduce the 60 percent threshold, something other EU member states had already done.

A few days later, on 27 March, we saw a consultation letter, from DEFRA, as is required by law when there is a proposal to change regulations. The amendment proposal was now formal, but had been absorbed into the "Red Tape Challenge". It was couched in terms of two options.

One was simply to reduce the permitted sugar level for jams from 60 to 55 percent, with an ingredient specific exemption for Bramley apples to a level of 50 percent. But, to allow for more flexibility, the DEFRA offered a wider-ranging amendment, with a general reduction in the permitted sugar level for jams from 60 to 50 percent.

We should note at this stage – because it will become important shortly – that there is no compulsion proposed. Manufacturers are not being required to reduce sugar content. Merely, they are being permitted to market recipes with sugar content down to 50 percent as jam.

That, you might think, would be the end of it, but was to reckon without the stupidity of Lib-Dem MP Tessa Munt – Vince Cable's PPS - and the backlash from the jam industry. In April, this had the Daily Mail reporting: "The jambusters: Now the sugar police want to turn Britain's favourite preserves into 'thin German gloop'".

Munt was demanding a parliamentary debate: "I want British jam for my grandchildren to be just like the British jam my grandmother made. If we change the rules, shoppers will lose confidence in jam brands".

"Tea time may never be the same again", the paper breathlessly reported. The "traditional taste and look of British jam" was "under threat" from Government plans to allow makers to reduce its sugar content. If implemented, manufacturers "could produce inferior runny spreads similar to those sold in Germany and France and still call them jam".

And, not only would they be thinner, "the reduced sugar could make them more vulnerable to mould and cause red fruit jams such as strawberry to discolour into brown mush". The Defra proposals had thus "outraged many jam-makers, who claim they will allow inferior products on to shop shelves", with "leading jam-maker Vivien Lloyd" having launched a petition on Facebook to "Keep Jam As Jam". "Consumers must wake up", she said. 

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On 30 October, Munt got her debate, heralded by the Daily Mail telling us that jam would be reduced to "coloured mud", spelling the "end of the British breakfast as we know it". Apparently oblivious to the irony of having Munt contesting a change initiated by her boss Vince Cable, the Telegraph reported that a "Government aide" had warned that the Ministers' jam plans would mean "the end of the British breakfast as we know it".

Katy Salter for the Guardian wrote a thousand words on whether reducing sugar would destroy Britain's jam and a restrained BBC intoned "Jam sugar limit should not be cut, MP urges". ITV blethered about "EU rules dictating the amount of sugar that must be in jam".

With increasing weariness, the European Commission remarked that, "if you believed some press this week, Brussels bureaucrats have been busy destroying the great British breakfast".

It is one thing, the Commission mused, for the EU to be accused of "ridiculous EU jam laws" but to be in the dock a few months later for "threatening the future of British jam" – because the UK government has decided to change the very same "jam laws" the media had previously so strongly objected to – is pretty good going.

And all the Telegraph can manage, though, is the observation that the European Union "has also been implicated in Whitehall attempts to change the acceptable level of sugar in jam".

But, there was an even greater irony. The original "barmy" regulations did not come from the EU. They actually implemented the Codex Alimentarius compositional and labelling standard, which is used as the basis for free trade under WTO rules. As such, it had been approved by Member States, including the UK, before it had been handed down to turn into community law. With or without the EU, the UK would have adopted the standard in its legislation, ready to give Clippy the story of her lifetime.

Above all, though, the story really does demonstrate how unreliable the legacy media is when it comes to reporting accurately on regulatory issues. And when one can even feel sympathy for the European Commission, it could hardly get worse.

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