Accusations of ‘lower quality’ food in Eastern Europe fall flat

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Recent accusations by consumer groups that multinational firms are marketing lower quality products in Eastern Europe are baseless, the European Commission has said, stating that companies were free to adapt their products to different markets.

Companies are under no obligation to market an identical product under the same brand in all EU countries, said Frederic Vincent, spokesperson to for Commissioner John Dalli, responsible for health and consumer policy.

As long as EU legislation on labelling and safety are respected, products can differ from one country to another, he explained. As a result, companies can use different ingredients and sell their products at different final prices, he said.

The EU executive was asked by EURACTIV to shed light on accusations by consumer groups that lower quality products were being sold to less affluent EU newcomers.

The Slovak Association of Consumers recently found that major food and drink multinational are packing variable quality products to be shipped in different EU countries (see 'Background'). The association claimed that if companies offer guarantees of quality, then these should be honoured in every country of distribution.

Bulgarian Agriculture Minister Miroslav Naydenov went even further, describing it as "abnormal" for double standards on food products to exist within the EU. Naydenov wrote to Commissioner Dalli asking him to investigate, and threatened companies found to be selling lower quality food in his country with legal action.

Vincent said Minister Naydenov's letter had reached Commissioner Dalli and that an answer was being prepared.  

A variety of cases illustrate the fact that companies are free to adapt their products to different national markets. For example, well-known chocolate brands often formulate their products differently to accommodate different tastes in the United Kingdom compared to on the continent, Vincent said.

Responding to accusations that products of varying quality are sold to Eastern Europe, Vincent said it was the responsibility of member states to make sure that no products that are harmful to health are placed on the market.

"There are efficient systems in place to ensure this is the case, including a rapid and effective response mechanism in the unlikely event that harmful food products are found on the market," he said.

Holding fire

According to the Bulgarian daily Trud, Minister Naydenov had been asked to temper his criticism of "double standards" for food products. The minister had initially said he would raise the issue at a meeting of EU agriculture ministers on 16-17 May. However, he was reportedly instructed by Foreign Minister Nickolay Mladenov to hold his fire.

"The fear of the foreign minister is that the lobbies of those multinational companies could return fire," Naydenov was quoted as saying by the Brussels correspondent of Bulgarian media outlet Trud Vesselin Zhelev.

"With my ministerial salary, I would be unable to pay the lawyer fees," he added, referring to the possibility that companies could take legal action against him.

Major food and drink multinationals are packing variable quality products to be shipped to different European countries under the same name, a survey conducted by the Slovak Association of Consumers recently alleged.

The association tested a selection of labelled food products purchased from supermarkets in eight EU member states: Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.

The products monitored were Coca-Cola beverages, Milka chocolate, black and red pepper from Kotanyi, Nescafé Gold instant coffee, Jacobs Kronung grain coffee and Tchibo Espresso coffee.

Of the tested products only Milka chocolate proved to be of identical quality across all the samples tested.

Producers claimed the quality of their products was not worse in Eastern Europe, but sometimes recipes differed according to consumer preferences. But some manufacturers acknowledged they had been using cheaper ingredients for the Eastern market, adding that this did not affect taste or quality.

The European Commission's representation in Slovakia, which financed the survey, said it would be up to Brussels to decide if and how to deal with the findings.

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