European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker criticised double standards of food quality in his address to Parliament on Wednesday morning (13 September), saying that there should be no “second class consumers” in the single market.
He was referring to different food manufacturers who were found earlier this year to be selling products with a lower content of primary ingredients or cheaper substitutes in Eastern European markets.
This raised anger among leaders in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Hungary, among others, who talked about “food apartheid”.
Second class consumers
“Slovaks deserve as much fish in their fish sticks as anyone else, and Czechs deserve as much cocoa in their chocolate as anyone else,” Juncker said in his annual State of the Union Speech [#SOTEU]. Cocoa, meat and fish were three of the ingredients which were found to differ across member states.
“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.”
He added that the rules banning such practice already exist but must now be enforced.
It is unclear, however, what EU rules he referred to. The practice of changing food recipes across countries is legal under the Consumer Information Regulation, as long as ingredients are faithfully declared.
But the fact that it’s legal doesn’t make it fair, according to Juncker, who will seek to address dual food quality as a competition issue (under the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive).
The Commission announced today it will present in the coming weeks guidance on dual quality of products to “help national consumer authorities make better use of existing EU consumer law to identify and address unjustified differences.”
EU Justice and Consumers Commissioner Věra Jourová was tasked with collecting evidence and she did find differences in food composition of the same branded products across countries.
Following Juncker’s speech, she tweeted a video message saying:
“Under EU rules double standards products are unacceptable in our Union. Our single market is not a double standard market and I, together with Juncker, take the matter very seriously. This is a European issue and there are no second category citizens in Europe.”
— Věra Jourová (@VeraJourova) September 13, 2017
The Commission will develop a methodology to harmonise food products tests among member states. It is also working on a code of conduct for brands, to ensure they respect a higher level of industry standards to prevent dual quality problems.
A populist move?
The food industry rejected the accusation of “second class consumers”.
FoodDrinkEurope, a European industry body, said that where there are differences in the composition of foods, these are due to many variables, including adaptation to local tastes and the use of local ingredients.
“We certainly do not consider our customers with such contempt. We definitely support rigorous tests to clearly assess the situation before more allegations are made,” a spokesperson for FoodDrinkEurope told EURACTIV.com
Consumer Choice Center, a campaigning group for consumers’ freedom, called Juncker’s declaration a “populist move,” in the words of Luca Bertoletti, its European affairs manager.
“Brands consider this practice legal as there is no European regulation on this matter and indeed this is the first time I hear such a thing,” he told EURACTIV.com.
National laws also contribute to differences in product recipes. “Austria has a law on the content of fish in fish fingers, which should not be less than 25%. So products for Austria will have more fish compared to products for the Czech Republic – but also compared to the same product in Germany, for example” said Bertoletti.
For Romanian MEP Daciana Sarbu, who has been vocal on the issue in the past, the Commission has now U-turned and more clarity is needed before taking further steps:
“We urgently need clarity from the Commission about the current legal situation before shifting the blame to member states,” she told EURACTIV.com.
“Specifically, which law prohibits these practices? There is evidence that the phenomenon of ‘dual quality’ is not restricted to foodstuffs but extends to other products and even services. Does the existing legal framework adequately cover all of these scenarios?” she asked.
Juncker’s talk on fish fingers, it seems, has raised more questions than it answered.