Equal standards for food across the EU: A matter of taste? No, a matter of quality!

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Lilyana Pavlova: "The Bulgarian EU Presidency places huge importance on protecting and enhancing the rights of all European citizens." [Shutterstock]

What is in the food that we buy? It’s a question whose answer is less certain than it should be. Shockingly, many food manufacturers find it acceptable to sell their food with standard packaging throughout the EU, but with very different content, and often lower quality, in different countries, writes Lilyana Pavlova.

Pavlova is the Minister for the Bulgarian Presidency of the EU.

I will not single out individual manufacturers by name, but the cases are by now rather well known. There is a coffee firm, which sells the same brand of coffee in two different countries, in identical packaging, but one coffee has less caffeine and more sugar. Frozen fish fingers, looking exactly the same, have much less fish in them in some countries than in others.

Perhaps worst of all, baby food not only has different content but can be up to 35% more expensive in countries like Bulgaria. Recently we have found that even hazelnuts are not what they seem – certain chocolate firms sell chocolate with a significantly lower amount of nuts in one country than the other.

This isn’t just about ingredients – it’s about quality. Consumers deserve the same level of quality irrespective of where they are in the EU, and they need to know what food they are giving to their children.

They also deserve clarity about the amount of sugar in their drinks, and the amount of fish in their fish bites, and the amount of nuts in their spread. It has become distressingly clear that some food companies believe that they can get away with offering sub-standard products in some markets: to be clear, in Central and Eastern European markets. This is a completely unacceptable double standard.

The Bulgarian EU Presidency places huge importance on protecting and enhancing the rights of all European citizens. Double standards of this kind will not be tolerated. The primary responsibility for ensuring food quality lies with each member state’s national consumer and food safety authorities.

The president of the Commission has often said: “There can be no second-class consumers in Europe.” Together with the European Commission, we are working to give all European citizens the quality of food that they deserve.

In response to the issue of double standards raised by the Bulgarian Presidency and many other Member States, the European Commission has proposed the New Deal for Consumers package on 11 April 2018.

The legislative package aims to enhance consumer rights and strengthen the regulatory framework so unfair trade practices, can be tackled quickly and efficiently. Concretely, in cases of misleading marketing or presentation, consumers will have the right to terminate a contract or claim financial compensation.

Consumers will also have more tools to make compensatory claims, including group claims. In the cases where a product’s content or characteristics differ significantly from one Member State to another, national supervisory authorities will have the authority to impose severe fines that can go up to 4% of the producer’s turnover. Because we are serious about punishing this illegal behaviour. That should make this form of food quality discrimination unthinkable as a business strategy.

There’s an important role here for the Bulgarian Presidency. We moved early, by initiating an expert level discussion as soon as the Commission had made its proposal, demonstrating our commitment to finding a comprehensive solution as soon as possible.

One particular issue is online shopping. Consumers need to know what they are buying. Online vendors have an obligation to be clear and truthful about the ingredients in their products. Transparency is essential; we cannot allow dishonest marketing to be hidden by the computer screen.

Most importantly, as a formal part of the Presidency agenda, we are hosting an International conference on double standards in the quality of food products, to take place in Sofia on 30 April.

This conference won’t be about complaints by the individual member states. It will be a serious conversation between national authorities, consumer groups and manufacturers, to commit to a shared understanding of consumers’ rights and manufacturers’ responsibilities – an important moment in the fight to eliminate double standards.

We are realistic. There is a lot of work to be done, and we don’t expect to complete it by the end of June. Our expectation is that we’ll make significant progress on the legislative package so that the Austrian presidency can finalise the legislation during its term. But we expect that this initiative will have full support from other EU actors.

This shows Europe at its best. Without the EU, without its deep-rooted, treaty-based commitment to the equal treatment of consumers in the single market, there would be nothing to prevent manufacturers from passing off poor products in poorer markets – whether food or anything else.

Some people like to mock what they see as the EU’s obsession with regulation. Let’s remember the point: ensuring the quality of choice of all European consumers, whichever country they may live in.

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