V4 stance on food quality: Second rate food for second rate citizens?
The divide between the capitalist West and the communist East was alimentary as much as political. Over 25 years after the fall of communism in Europe, V4 leaders believe that in their countries citizens still buy second rate food. The citizens of the ‘new’ EU earn less than their counterparts in the West, but often pay more for food. Research conducted in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Croatia show that at least some of the products on sale in these countries are not only more expensive but also have poorer quality than their equivalents sold under the same name in the West.
“In Hainburg [Austria] you buy a product with sugar, but in Slovakia you get an artificial sweetener, and in addition, the product is more expensive. So tell them to write that it’s muck,“ said Robert Fico, the prime minister of Slovakia, commenting on the differences in food products on the European market during a V4 summit in Bratislava in October 2017.
Fico is not the first East European politician to bring up the subject of double-quality products, but together with his counterpart in the Czech Republic and Hungary, he has invested this problem with a new political dimension.
In some of the meat and fish fingers examined in Slovakia, there was more salt and less meat than in those sold in Austria. Czech breakfast cereal Nesquick contained less vitamins and cocoa than German ones. Differences were found as well in Nutella, Jacobs coffee and Nestea tea. Tulip luncheon meat, sold in both countries under the same name, turned out to be two different products – the Czech one contained poultry meat, the German – pork.
Already back in 2009, the Romanian MEP Rareș-Lucian Niculescu stated in a question to the European Commission: “Situations have been reported where products of four different quality categories were sold in different destination countries under the same brand name.” At that time the European Commission paid little attention to the Romanian’s concern, as such practices are not illegal on the single market.
V4 Leaders: current regulations are not enough
It is the directive concerning unfair commercial practices, which, makes it obligatory to place the product’s ingredients on the label. A product of the same name, but not always the same ingredients, can be sold in different countries but only under the condition that it is properly labeled.
Meglena Kuneva, the Bulgarian Commissioner for Consumer Protection from 2007 to 2010, admitted that using well-known brands for selling low-quality products could mislead the consumers, but in her opinion, such situations should be addressed individually by state legislatures or offices for consumer protection.
While the Commission twiddled its thumbs, Slovakians, Czechs and Hungarians came to view this issue as a symbol of the old EU treating its new members as second-class citizens.
“The same product, the same brand, the same label and the same packaging, but in Slovakia it contains less meat, more fat, more preservatives and more artificial sweeteners. So don’t be telling us that we are sitting in business class when we are tagging along in coach,” said Fico during a summit of the Visegrad Group in Warsaw in March 2016.
Other leaders from the new EU followed with their concerns. Boyko Borisov, the prime minister of Bulgaria, called this situation “a remnant of apartheid”. The Eastern European leaders’ harsh remarks and outrage were directed mostly at international corporations, but Brussels got its fair share as well.
Politicians in the Czech Republic, the most Eurosceptic of V4 societies, are particularly eager to attack the EU on the issue of food quality. The state parliament has debated this problem on several occasions. In November 2016, Simeon Karamazov (conservative Civic Democratic Party) argued that the EU should focus on the problems of its citizens, and not foreigners, as it did during the refugee crisis. In March 2017, Marek Černoch from the populist Úsvit (Dawn), stated that Western corporations view the Czech Republic as a second-class country and “the landfill of Europe”.
Věra Jourová, the Commissioner for Justice and Consumers from the Czech Republic, tries to conciliate the anti-EU sentiments in her country. In an interview for info.cz, she admitted there was a problem, but professed that the Union faces more important challenges. She also criticized politicians using this issue to attack Brussels.
The Hungarian parliament passed an appeal for forbidding the sale of products varying in ingredients under the same name on the EU market.
The Commission lifts a finger
The V4 countries’ complaints did not go unheard. Commissioner Jourova and her superior, Jean-Claude Juncker, admitted that the problem is real and the Commission must play a role in solving it. Both of them treat this issue as a political challenge and an opportunity to improve the relations with the Visegrad Group after the battles for the relocation of refugees and the still on-going conflict over the breach of the rule of law in Poland and Hungary.
“In a Union of equals, there can be no second-class consumers either. I cannot accept that in some parts of Europe, in Central and Eastern 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,” said Juncker in his State of the Union speech in autumn.
According to EU Observer, after meeting with Fico in July, Juncker joked about it being “the first time that a prime minister coming from the Visegrad Four is asking the Commission to have more competences”.
“The problem of double quality food is at the same time judicial and political,” said Jourova in an interview for info.cz. She declared that many poor quality products would disappear from the Czech market within a year. No legal changes were promised, but Jourova said the Commission should support state institutions controlling food quality and develop a methodology that would point to manufacturers offering poorer quality products for citizens of the new EU. The Commissioner also stressed the importance of pressure exerted by the consumers.
In March 2017 the Commission has allocated one million euros for designing research of food products in the Union.
Slovaks, Czechs and Hungarians check their food
Up until now, V4 leaders had only state-wide studies to back up their claims. Conducted on a relatively small sample of products, they have shown differences in quality but were not enough to assess the scale of the problem.
Slovakians were the first to conduct research on this issue. In 2011 they compared food products sold in Germany, Austria and Eastern Europe (including Poland). The analysis of the Slovak Association of Consumers (partly financed by the EU) uncovered differences not only between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ union but also among countries in the East. For example, Coca-Cola sold in the West, in Poland and the Czech Republic contained natural sugar (sucrose) but in Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania – isoglucose – a cheaper, poorer quality sweetener.
Research conducted in 2016 by the Slovak Ministry of Agriculture and the National Veterinary and Food Administration showed differences in half of the 22 examined products.
The Czechs have conducted several pieces of research: the first one in cooperation with the MEPOlga Sehnalova and the owner of a Czech supermarket chain ‘Albert Heijn’. Out of 23 products examined, 8 were found to differ from their counterparts in other countries.
Results of the Czech studies partly corresponded with those conducted by the Slovakians – e.g. Iglo fish fingers in both countries were revealed to contain 7% less meat than in Austria and Germany. DTest, the Czech consumer association, also found differences in quality of food products.
Hungarians found little proof of double quality products. Analysis of the NÉBIH, Hungarian Food Safety Office, did demonstrate some differences, but not substantial enough to claim a systematic discrimination of Hungarian consumers by Western manufacturers (e.g. Raffaello pralines sold in Hungary contained more desiccated coconut than in Austria).
Due to lack of clear scientific proof, the Hungarian government decided to invoke the voice of the people – in June 2017 they conducted a survey among Hungarian consumers. 49% of respondents claimed to have experienced differences in the quality of products sold at home and abroad (in 97% of cases the differences were in favour of Western products).
PiS: For and against at the same time
Polish institutions responsible for consumer protection have not conducted any research comparing food products at home and abroad. In March 2017, after representatives of Slovakia and the Czech Republic brought up this subject at the Council of Ministers, minister Krzysztof Jurgiel said that Poland does not experience the problem of food “double standards” but supports the actions of its partners from the Visegrad Group.
In October 2017, Law and Justice MPs asked about this issue in the Polish parliament. The Vice-Minister of Agriculture, Jacek Bogucki, responded that in Poland this problem is “less visible” as most of the food products on the market come from Polish manufacturers.
He added, however, that: “this does not mean that we as a ministry and our regulatory authorities do not see and had not seen this problem. This problem was many times the subject of debate in Poland, public debate as well, only it concerned not agricultural and foodstuff products, but other market products, since double quality is an issue affecting not just the agricultural and foodstuff sector” he explained.
Law and Justice MEPs also recognize the issue of double quality products. In March of last year, Anna Fotyga signed an interpellation of couple dozens Eastern European MEPs. The document references various types of products “from food and toiletries to detergents and disinfectants – which are of inferior quality and sometimes at a higher price than identical products in the western segment of the EU market.”
Out of Polish MEPs, Róża Thun, Dariusz Rosati, Adam Szejnfeld and Julia Pitera (all of them EPP) also signed the interpellation.
The Parliament debated this issue in May. “The topic of our discussion today seems insignificant only at first glance, and in reality affects a great number of EU citizens, as well in my country, Poland, as in many other new member states, who are without a doubt discriminated against by food or cleaning supplies manufacturers” – said Kosma Złotowski(ECR, PiS).
Urszula Krupa, also a Law and Justice member, called the double quality products “counterfeit foods”. “This problem requires a central solution undertaken by the UE so that we would be able to somehow examine these products” said the MEP.
Olga Sehnalová (S&D) also voiced support for the appeal to scrutinize this problem on a European level. The Czech MEP is worked on the issue of double quality food products since 2015. She pointed out that the problem had finally gained political traction and expressed hope that MEP’s proposition will start to be taken seriously.
Apart from Eastern Europeans, the only MEPs to speak were Seán Kelly (Ireland, EPP), who backed the initiative, and Jean-Luc Schaffhauser (France, ENF) who said that there is no breach of law, it is just corporations adjusting to specific circumstances of local markets.
The EP does more than just debating. Róża Thun proposed an amendment to the 2018 budget that would allocate additional 900,000 euros (apart from the million euros previously assigned by the Commission) for conducting research of food products and more.
According to Thun’s project, the analysis was to comprise various types of products, but the IMCO committee decided that food would be examined first, and reduced the budget to 800,000 euros. The European Commission will oversee the research, but the team will also include one representative from the EP – probably Thun.
‘The team will inspect whether the issue is moving forward and whether the legislative proposal is being drafted at a proper pace. It will decide what is and what isn’t possible to achieve with this amount of money and how to inform the public about it. This could entail a substantial change for entrepreneurs, and every change brings about some costs” – said the MEP in a comment for MamPrawoWiedziec.pl.
The Commission will analyze the problem
In his State of the Union speech, Juncker made clear that he regards the issue of food double standard as a priority and sees it as an opportunity to reduce the tensions between the East and the West. When Western politicians were talking about a two-speed Europe and criticising the East for breaching European values, Juncker declared that all EU citizens must be treated equally.
The costs of EU’s goodwill amounted to less than 2 million euros (costs of conducting the research) – an insignificant figure compared to the billions, which flow every year to V4 countries.
Czech and Hungarian MPs do not hold back with harsh words about Brussels, but the governments repeat that they appreciate the actions of the Commission. It seems that Brussels and Visegrad have finally found a subject they can discuss constructively and reach an agreement that satisfies both parties.
The Polish government might have had a role in this successful political undertaking, but decided not to get involved. Moreover, they have entirely neglected a real problem – if we are to believe minister Jurgiel – of double quality products other than food. Meanwhile, toiletries and cleaning supplies must wait for their turn as researchers in Brussels first examine foodstuffs.
The text was created as part of a joint project of four organizations: Czech Kohovolit.eu, Slovakian Demagog.sk, Hungarian Atlatszo.hu and Polish MamPrawoWiedziec.pl. The project “Closer to V4 Policy” is funded by the Visegrad Fund.
Collaboration in collecting and compiling the data: Jaroslav Bilek, Barbora Belovicka, Emese Keyha, Magdalena Wnuk, Wojciech Gąsior.
English editing: Helena Teleżyńska.
The article was first published in Polityka.pl.