The European Commission said yesterday (26 September) it was ready to advise European consumers to boycott products of lower quality that are presented in Eastern EU countries with exactly the same packaging as in wealthier EU states.
The EU executive published yesterday a set of guidelines to help national governments assess allegations that food companies sell lower quality products in their countries.
Investigations by several governments in central and eastern Europe have found that multinational food companies sell products made with lower quality ingredients in the EU’s newer member states, while marketing them with the same packaging and branding used in western Europe.
The discovery of “dual quality” foods has drawn severe criticism from leaders in the EU’s eastern member states. Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov in July decried dual food standards as “food apartheid”, while a Hungarian government official described it as “the biggest scandal of the recent past”.
Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker promised to tackle the issue in his 13 September State of the Union speech, saying: “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.”
Food companies have defended the practice, saying different markets have different demands and that they adapt their recipes to suit local tastes. Producers argue they can legally use any ingredients they want, as long as they are clearly stated on the packaging.
The guidelines launched by the European Commission on Tuesday aim to help member states enforce EU law and ensure the information consumers receive about the products they buy is accurate.
At the announcement of the guidelines, European Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality Věra Jourová said: “Presenting two different products in the same branded packaging is misleading and unfair to consumers.”
Jourová, who is Czech, said she was going to be “personal” about this issue, because she had “her own memories” from the early 1990s, when she and her parents went for the first time to Austria “with a few Austrian shillings in our pockets” and bought chocolate and coffee.
“When the chocolate and coffee were brought home, all the family came to look at it, and it tasted different. Now we are far away from that moment, but we still have these complaints from our consumers,” she said, adding, “we don’t want a single market of double standards”.
“We are not naming and shaming, you know we have not mentioned any concrete brands, but when we have the evidence, I will not hesitate to advise the consumers not to buy these products, if we see very clearly that the problem is the quality,” the Commissioner added.
But until now it has not always been clear when dual food quality issues constituted a breach of law. “The current legislation is probably flexible enough to allow – at least in some cases – dual quality products on the market without being technically illegal,” Daciana Sârbu, a Romanian MEP (S&D group) and vice-chair of the European Parliament’s environment, public health and food safety committee, told EURACTIV.com
She added that the current legislation does not adequately address the duality of food quality but that “the emphasis is on the accurate labelling of individual items rather than any differences between separate items”.
Under the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive, companies may not market identically branded products in a way that could mislead consumers. “But this could be very difficult to prove,” Sârbu said, adding that the Commission’s guidelines “shed some light on the situation and are a step in the right direction”.
“For too long Member States alone couldn’t find the right way to address this,” Jourová said. “I am determined to put an end to this practice.”
FoodDrinkEurope, the industry body representing the interests of Europe’s food and drinks producers, said it welcomed the Commission’s move to issue guidance to member states on the dual quality issue.
“We look forward to continue engaging with the Commission to establish an open dialogue with other parties at stake, including Member States and consumer organisations,” the organisation stated.