Food double standards now in EU's spotlight

The European Commission wants to stop dumping of poor food in CEE region

The European Commission wants to get clear evidence that food and cleaning items sold under the same names are not the same in different markets. The Commission wants to test to see if there are is a double quality standard, and has allocated EUR 2 million (Kč 52 million) for the purpose.

Czech media has been pointing out for several years that Central and Eastern Europe has become a dumping ground for poor quality food sold in identical packaging to superior items available in Western Europe.

In his Sept. 13 State of the Union address, EC President Jean-Claude Juncker mentioned the issue. “In a Union of equals, there can be no second class consumers. I will not accept that in some parts of Europe, people are sold food of lower quality than in other countries, despite the packaging and branding being identical. Slovaks do not deserve less fish in their fish fingers. Hungarians less meat in their meals. Czechs less cacao in their chocolate. EU law outlaws such practices already. We must now equip national authorities with stronger powers to cut out any illegal practices wherever they exist,” he said.

EU Commissioner Věra Jourová said money is being released to gather evidence. Jourová, from the Czech Republic, is in part responsible for consumer protection.

EUR 1 million will go to testing itself, and another EUR 1 million will go to create a methodology for individual countries to follow in the future. She made the announcement at the quarterly meeting of the Czech Parliament's agriculture committee in Jihlava in the Vysočina region.

“According to our legal opinion, it's an unfair commercial practice, and we have the tools to fight it,” Jourová said, according to daily Mladá fronta Dnes (MfD). She added that it was important to bring attention to the issue so it can be changed.

The fastest way to solve the issue is to use European rules for unfair commercial practices. “I will also give the national authorities a methodology for proceeding. I believe that when we proceed on a case-by-case basis, we can solve many of these things over the next year,” she said, according to MfD.

National authorities will each determine how to either force the products to disappear from the market or to improve their quality, Jourová said.

The problem needs to be dealt with on the EU level since the products are often made in a different country than where they are sold. “That's why it is so important that we have come to a situation where it is a problem in the European market and not just a matter for each state," Jourová said, according to MfD.

Slovakia and the Czech Republic have conducted their own tests. In the Czech Republic, 13 of the 21 tested products varied in quality and composition. For example, luncheon meat in the Czech Republic was made from chicken, while a product sold under the same label in Germany had pork. Detergents sold by the same brand had lower levels of active ingredients in the Czech version. In different tests, pizzas and margarine were all found to be different.

People who live near the Czech-German border say differences are clearly noticeable in many items such as canned tuna, which is solid in Germany and mushy in the Czech version, or sausages that have different amounts of meat and filler.

In Slovakia pudding had different amounts of cream and fish fingers had less meat than in the Austrian versions

The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia and possibly Slovenia and the Baltic States could be interested in testing products.

Czech Agriculture Minister Marian Jurečka (KDU-ČSL) said that stronger European legislation was needed, but the EU was headed in the right direction. He added that the Agriculture Ministry would continue to test products.

Producers have previously defended the practice of different qualities in different markets based on national preferences. Some countries prefer sweeter foods or more fat, for example, or want cheaper price tags per item, requiring cheaper formulas.

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