New potatoes are not what they used to be.
Indeed, like many of us, they’re not getting any younger. But to be buying a bunch of new potatoes in March that were originally plucked from the soil in August is extreme indeed. This was one finding of an investigation by South Ayrshire trading standards officers, who monitored the sale of ‘new’ potatoes from eight well-known supermarkets – and found that some of them weren’t quite up to snuff.
South Ayrshire was put on the case of these rogue old potatoes by one George Norris of Ayr, who had reason to believe his ‘new’ spuds had been in cold storage for some time. Mr Norris carried out his own research and discovered there was no legal definition of a ‘new potato’.
Enter the Potato Council, which today published a standard definition of the new potato. New potatoes, the council says, must be destined for consumer purchase soon after harvest; they must have an immature, thin or scraping skin; and be of an appropriate variety.
It’s not much more detailed than that. While it’s probably a good thing the Potato Council has avoided being too proscriptive, the definition – particularly with reference to the time frame – seems too vague to be of much help. “Soon is defined as the period up to and including which the potatoes can reasonably be expected to retain their specific properties if properly stored,” the guidelines elaborate, in one slightly brain-melting sentence.
The Potato Council’s Caroline Evans adds: “Our description of a ‘new potato’ means customers know they’re enjoying potatoes at their seasonal best – and if your supermarket adopts the description, you can be sure of what you’re buying.”
But will the retailers play ball? “We would love to be able to supply freshly lifted new potatoes year-round from UK growers but due to the nature of the growing season, this isn’t possible, so we use cold storage to ensure we can always meet customer demand,” Tesco says. “We will be reviewing the labelling of three of our potato products to be sure we are giving the clearest possible information to our customers in line with the ‘new’ definition.”
Sainsbury’s, meanwhile, welcomed the guidelines but said: “We can confirm that we already source to these standards.”
So don’t expect to see a radical shake-up on the potato aisle just yet. Indeed, you can’t but help wonder if this new definition was a missed opportunity – what if the time frame had specified 72 hours from field to shelf, for example?
Nonetheless, kudos must go to the public-spirited Mr Norris of Ayr, who in a small way has scratched his name onto the history of the new potato.
Are there any other foodstuffs that should have a standard definition in law and/or practise? Let us know in the comments below.