Dual food quality: no East-West divide, but different compositions persist

A report published by the European Commission’s research body on Monday (24 June) found that there is no ‘East-West food quality discrimination in Europe’. It said there was no consistent geographical pattern in the use of same or similar packaging for products with different compositions.

The dual quality of food has been on the EU’s radar for the past couple of years. The controversy started when consumers, particularly from Eastern countries, complained that the composition of certain foodstuffs such as soft drinks, coffee and fish fingers, was different in their home country compared to other member states.

According to the consumers who warned about possible differences in food quality, these products were sold as being identical or very similar.

In his 2017 State of the Union address, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker appeared to recognise that the problem existed, saying he wouldn’t accept it that people in some parts of Europe are sold food of lower quality than in other countries, despite the packaging and branding being identical.

“Presenting two different products in the same branded packaging is misleading and unfair to consumers,” Vera Jourova, Commissioner for consumer protection, said at the time, adding that she was determined to put an end to the practice.

EU bans dual quality food after pressure from eastern members

The European Commission announced on Wednesday (11 April) it would prohibit dual quality food across the bloc, following complaints and pressure from Central and Eastern European (CEE) member states.

Food companies defended themselves by saying that changes were needed to adapt the recipes to local taste and demand, but that they didn’t amount to lower quality products.

The Joint Research Centre of the European Commission conducted tests on 1,400 foodstuffs from 19 EU countries, finding that no East-West divide was found in the ingredients of identically branded products.

“The new member states are not systematically discriminated against as it was widely interpreted,” JRC Director Vladimír Šucha said.

The report does, however, display that almost one-third of products on the European market are identically or similarly labelled but have a different composition.

While in the majority of cases, composition matched the way products were branded, 9% of products had different compositions but identical front-of-packs and 22% of sold food items were branded as being similar despite having different compositions.

Hungarian Commissioner Tibor Navracsics said he’s worried that the study uncovered op to one-third of tested products similarly branded but having different compositions, even though no evidence of an East-West divide was found.

Coinciding with the publications of the results of the report, the Commission launched a new call for proposals to strengthen the capacities of consumer organisations to test products and identify potential misleading practices, with a dedicated budget of €1.26 million.

In addition to this, the Commission also intends supporting member states’ to conduct dual quality investigations. The revised Consumer Protection Cooperation (CPC) regulation, which comes into effect on 17 January 2020, will help the member states investigate breaches of consumer rules across borders.

The results of the Commission’s comprehensive analysis were welcomed by the food industry confederation FoodDrinkEurope, as well as the European brands association (AIM).

According to them, the results were unsurprising, as they have “always argued” that there was no division of market for food into ‘East-West’ in the EU.

“We hope that the publication of the JRC report will provide reassurance to consumers, authorities and other stakeholders,” said Mella Frewen, Director General of FoodDrinkEurope.

[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna]

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