Europe’s Food Fight

Any Czech chef worth his or her paprika will tell you that the
best batch of goulash is the one that sits overnight and gets mixed
with a fresh batch just before being served. But, as of May 1, when
the Czech Republic becomes part of the European Union — along with
seven other central and eastern European countries, as well as
Cyprus and Malta — this time-honored culinary tradition will be
against EU food-safety regulations.

The rule, which states that food must be served within three
hours of preparation, is one among many created by the EU in an
effort to standardize commercial practices across its now 25 member
states. So far, however, the regulations seem to have inspired at
least as much bickering as European team building.

The tension has been around ever since the vision of a unified
Europe was advanced in the middle of the 20th century. The goal of
preventing the fragmented Europe of World War II and ensuring the
free movement of goods, people, services, and money has also
inspired impassioned (and embittered) debate about national and
regional cultural preservation.

In January 2003, for instance, the Brits won a three-decade
battle when the EU court decided that chocolate containing up to 5
percent vegetable fat and up to 20 percent milk must be sold, along
with other varieties, in all EU countries. For countries like Spain
and Italy, which had refused to sell high-fat, high-milk-content
British chocolate in their shops, the ruling meant that though
mainland European consumers would be free to choose among more
varieties, their traditional definition of what made chocolate
chocolate was diluted.

In recent years, however, the EU has also ruled in favor of
several countries that sought to retain the names of their native
products. The Greeks, for example, won the exclusive right to
produce cheese marketable as feta — much to the chagrin of
Denmark, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, all major
European cheese producers. And the Italians won similar rulings
regarding Parma ham and Parmesan cheese, both products of the Parma

Success has not been limited to food and drink. The Latvians,
after much debate, are being allowed to carry on their ancient
tradition of hunting lynx; the Danes have managed to reverse an EU
ruling that would have prohibited the sale of a traditional
children’s toy because of EU safety standards; and, during their
bid to join the union, the Maltese requested and were awarded a
temporary ex-emption from a law that prohibits trapping several
species of finch.

The victories are moral as well as economic. As the European
Union continues to expand eastward, as the euro becomes the sole
currency of the region, and as the economic and political barriers
between member states continue to be dismantled, the European
landscape could begin to look increasingly homogenous. But these
quarrels over definitions, titles, and traditions suggest that
beneath the bureaucratic surface, European cultures are still
intent on being themselves.

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