Are the citizens of eastern EU Member States offered ‘second class’ products?

Wednesday 26 July 2017

Eastern European Member States are calling upon the EU Commission to act in order to ensure that all consumers within the European Union have the right to quality and safe products. Many studies revealed that ingredients used in products of the same brand sold on the 'new' EU Member States’ markets are less healthy and of lesser quality than the ones sold in Western Europe. Accusations of an unfair distortion of the single market arose, claiming that multinational companies discriminate against consumers in the eastern EU countries.

Lower proportion of fat, substitution of animal fat by fat of plant origin, different content of meat, added artificial sweeteners instead of natural sweeteners, substitution of fruit component by colouring and artificial fruit aroma, different taste and colour, these are some of the conclusions drawn from a study comparing products sold under the same brand and in similar packaging in Western EU countries and Eastern EU countries.

Even if the products were found to be safe for consumption and properly labelled, the issue mobilised many Members of the European Parliament and Heads of Member states, claiming that it is unacceptable that consumers are treated differently, knowing that non-discrimination is a key principle of the Internal Market.  The food industry replied that differences in some products’ ingredients are simply due to the different national tastes across the EU.

The issue is not new, with the first question about the quality of branded products raised in the European Parliament in 2009. Additional spotlight was given to the question by tests carried out in Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic in 2015 and 2016. The dual quality of food was put on the agenda of the Agriculture and Fisheries Council meeting in 2016 and again in 2017. The Commission explained that as long as products comply with EU legal requirements and do not mislead consumers, no legislation prevents companies from differentiating products according to markets, in line with the taste, preferences or purchasing power of consumers. In addition, the Commission recalled that national authorities remain competent to assess whether any of these alleged practices are in breach of the applicable consumer protection legislation.

When the Parliament submitted a major interpellation in May 2017, the Commission answered by stating that it had invited the Member States to deliver further data to assess these practices and had received answers from 21 Member States. The Commission presented the information received at the High-Level Forum for a better functioning food supply chain in June.

Last week, Věra Jourová, the Commissioner responsible for consumers, discussed the issue again at the Agriculture and Fisheries EU Council meeting. She reiterated that the focus should be on a dialogue with consumers’ organisations and the producers. Clearly, for Commissioner Jourová, “this is not a matter of a new legislation which would come into force somewhere in 2023 if ever[1]”.

But will this dialogue process be enough for the Visegrad Group? Slovakia Prime Minister, Robert Fico, negotiating on the issue with the EU Commission on behalf of Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland — the so-called “Visegrad Four” group – recalled that “appropriate Union level legal provisions are indispensable[2]”. He added that unless the European Commission acts more resolutely about the lower quality of food sold in newer member states, Slovakia will take unilateral action. Such measures could include instructions for public institutions to only purchase Slovak products for their catering services. Fico also suggested the use of the European Citizens Initiative: a million EU citizens could ask for a legislative proposal from the Commission[3].

This position took by Slovakia’s Prime Minister is one of many passionate speeches given by Eastern Heads of State and Ministers: Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov has claimed the practice as “food apartheid” and Czech Agriculture Minister Marian Jurečka declared that the east was tired of being “Europe’s garbage can”.  According to Antony Galabov of the New Bulgarian University, besides offering a distraction at home, this battle is a "war horse" for populist governments wanting "to prove that the European Union is incapable of guaranteeing the equal treatment of its citizens"[4].





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