A new study on food quality has found detectable differences between European products but said they were not correlated with geography, lending weight to the idea that there is no East-West divide in food quality discrimination in Europe.
The study, published on Tuesday (23 March) by the Joint Research Centre (JRC), the European Commission’s science and knowledge service, aimed to establish whether previously discovered compositional differences in products can be perceived by human senses.
Using sensory testing, 20 packaged food products were sampled in several EU member states. For 10 of the 20 products evaluated, the sensory assessment revealed differences that reflected the compositional variation of the samples.
The findings suggest that versions of a food product offered under the same branding but differing in composition, such as quantity or kind of an ingredient, may have detectable sensory differences, which could then influence consumer choice.
However, these observed differences were not found to be linked to certain geographical areas, indicating that it is not an East-West divide as has previously been suggested.
This reinforced the conclusions from the first part of the study from 2018/2019, which reported differences for about one-third of products tested that were not immediately apparent from the front-of-pack information, but only from the ingredients.
However, this first study also found that these differences were not correlated with geography.
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 first 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 acknowledge that the problem existed, saying he would not accept it that people in some parts of Europe are sold food of lower quality than in other countries, while the packaging and branding was identical.
“Presenting two different products in the same branded packaging is misleading and unfair to consumers,” Věra Jourová, then Commissioner for consumer protection, said at the time, adding that she was determined to put an end to the practice.
Food companies insisted that changes were needed to adapt the recipes to local taste and demand but did not amount to lower quality products.
This two-part study aimed to put to rest the question of the dual quality of food.
Welcoming the second part of the report, Jourová said the EU pays “close attention” to the issue of dual quality.
“There can be no unjustified differentiation of products in the EU. This is why we strengthened our consumer laws and empowered consumers in this regard. These laws must be vigorously enforced, also on this issue, and the Commission stands ready to support the authorities, if needed,” she said.
FoodDrinkEurope spokesman Will Surman told EURACTIV that the European Commission’s report “confirms, once again, that there is no evidence of an East-West divide in food quality”.
“We hope this will reassure consumers, authorities and stakeholders that there is no such thing as ‘dual quality’,” he said, adding that it is essential that all food and drink is safe and of high quality, irrespective of where it is sold in Europe.
“While food and drink recipes can be adapted for many reasons, including to cater for specific consumer preferences, to comply with national legislation and to optimise the use of local raw materials, this should in no way be confused with offering lesser-quality products,” he stressed.
Floriana Cimmarusti, secretary-general of Safe Food Advocacy Europe, told EURACTIV that while the JRC study shows no clear geographical distinction can be found, there are “still issues in quality differences that need to be addressed and further studied.”
“SAFE believes consumers all over Europe deserve products of the same quality and should not be misled into thinking they are buying a product of identical quality when it is not always the case,” she said.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]