Slovak study fuels concerns about lower quality food in Eastern Europe

EURACTIV.com was informed that the EU executive will come up with a specific proposal in June. [Hilke Heijmans/Flickr]

A study carried out by the Slovak government has found significant quality differences in the same products sold in Slovakia and Austria.

For several years there has been speculation about the dual-quality foodstuffs phenomenon, where multinational companies sell products under the same trademark and the same packaging but which actually contain different ingredients.

In addition, sometimes the quality is also different, raising concerns about consumer health.

East-West divide

The issue of dual quality foodstuffs in the EU single market was officially raised by the Slovakian Presidency of the EU. Referring to several government studies, it found that consumers in Eastern Europe could be consuming lower quality food.

Lower quality of same food brands in Eastern Europe raises eyebrows

Big companies are selling better food in Austria than they sell in Hungary, even though the brands are supposed to be the same, the Hungarian government said yesterday (16 February).

The issue has been raised in the Council of Ministers by the Slovakian and Czech Republic representatives, and the European Commission has agreed to look into the matter.

Daciana Sârbu (S&D group), vice-chair of the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety in the European Parliament (ENVI) told euractiv.com that the Commission should investigate the phenomenon and find out whether this East-West divide exists.

“If it does, appropriate EU measures must be taken to prevent it. This is about a principle, and the right of all consumers to be treated equally, wherever they are in the EU,” the Romanian socialist MEP noted.

EURACTIV was informed that the EU executive will come up with a specific proposal in June.

Romanian MEP: EU needs food quality agency

Food quality in Western Europe can differ greatly to what Central and Eastern European shops stock on their shelves. S&D group MEP Daciana Sârbu spoke to EURACTIV Romania about the issue and promoting local produce.

A new study

Several governments are currently carrying out tests in order to gather evidence, including Romania and the Czech Republic. The Slovak government recently conducted such a survey on 22 different food products of the same brand and labelling sold in Slovakia and Austria.

The findings of the study will be presented today (11 April) at the “No more double standard in foodstuff – Same brand, same product, same quality” event in the European Parliament.

According to the results, no significant difference was noticed in nine products, small differences affecting quality to a smaller extent in three products and bigger differences considerably affecting quality in ten products.

The study noted that the main differences in products were related to the composition (e.g. materials with lower proportion of fats, substitution of animal fats by fats of plant origin, different content of meat), added artificial sweeteners (Slovakia) instead of natural sweeteners (Austria), substitution of fruit component by colouring and artificial fruit aroma, different taste and colour and quality of packaging of the product.

Visegrád readies attack against 'double standards' for food

The leaders of the Visegrád Group (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary) are meeting today (2 March) in Warsaw to discuss, among other things, food quality in Central and Eastern Europe.

Examples

One example is Coca-Cola, which has significant differences in taste in the two countries. In Slovakia, the taste is mildly sweet while in Austria it’s sweet. There are also different indications on the labelling, with fructosan-glucosic syrup in Slovakia and sugar in Austria.

Another case, according to the study, is “iglo” fish fingers, where the content of the fish meat was 8.8% more in the Austrian than the Slovakian product. There are also differences in packaging with products such as Earl Grey black tea.

In Austria, we have tea bags in aluminium sachets while in Slovakia they are in paper sachets. “Aluminium tea bags maintain the aroma and taste, while bigger pieces of tea leaf contribute to better quality of food,” the survey noted.

Emmental cheese in Slovakia does not have the characteristic structure or look the cheese is known for, which is light-yellow in colour and texture with bigger or smaller holes.

The product on sale in Austria does have the characteristic look, colour, and texture.

In the case of mozzarella cheese, the weight of the compact product is 125g, as indicated on the package. In Slovakia, the real weight is 119.4g while in Austria it is 124g.

Positions

In response to this article, Fred Roeder, Managing Director of the Consumer Choice Center, said, “Consumers are free to pivot to other products if they aren't happy with the taste or consistency of some offered brands in their country. The fact that this didn't happen shows that food producers apparently hit the local median taste with their regionalised strategy of ingredients. Calling for mandatory harmonization of the taste of products all across the EU is the last thing the EU and consumer need”.

“Stigmatising different tastes and percentages of fruit juice in drinks to an East-West conflict is wrong. There are also massive differences in taste, consistency, and color among fairly homogenous groups of countries. This is driven by consumer preferences and choice,” he added.

Further Reading