EU lawmakers to discuss companies selling poorer quality food in Eastern Europe

© iStock/hansslegers

The EU Agriculture and Fisheries Council will discuss the issue of dual quality foods next week as Slovakia and Hungary push for EU legislation to prevent manufacturers selling poorer quality products in Eastern countries of the single market bloc.

Delegates at an Agriculture and Fisheries Council will discuss the issue at a meeting scheduled for 6 March.

“Guaranteeing the quality of identical foodstuffs in free movement within the European market is a principal issue in order to meet consumers’ expectations. On the other hand certain practices in trade with foodstuffs also merit due attention,” reads a note compiled by the countries to be studied at the meeting.

“Therefore Slovakia and Hungary propose to open again the discussion of the issues raised in this note, and ask the Commission to consider appropriate action including legislation at EU level.”

Slovakian authorities recently conducted laboratory analyses of 22 food products and found considerable differences in 10 products (four milk products, two beverages, one fish product, one seasoning, one sweet product and one tea).

The quality issues concerned swapping real fruit for colourings and fruit flavourings, replacing animal fats for plant-based fats, a lower meat content, using artificial sweeteners instead of sugar or even a lower quality packaging.

The Hungarian analysis revealed that Knorr powdered soup with meatballs and noodles has almost twice as many meatballs in Austria than in Hungary, for instance.

The note says that based on the general public interest, Hungary and Slovakia will continue to carry out further investigations to protect consumers and their trust in the quality of food throughout the EU.

Companies implicated include PepsiCo, Ferrero, Nestlé and Danone.

'Impertinent manipulation'

The issue is not new nor are Hungary and Slovakia the only countries to have raised the issue.

Last year the Czech Republic tabled the issue at an AG committee meeting, arguing that consumers are being misled. “Regardless of a region or a particular country, products from one producer and of the same name should be of the same quality and should have the same content of ingredients for all consumers,” it said.

A survey commissioned by the Czech Agriculture and Food Inspection Authority (CAFIA) questioned 1000 consumers on the issue and found the overwhelming majority (88%) said they felt “annoyed and offended”. Over one third (36%) said it amounted to “impertinent manipulation” and only 4% said they did not mind. 

Solving the issue, however may not be as simple as it seems.

EU law protects consumers across the bloc from ingredients that are dangerous and unsafe to eat, but it doesn't legislate on maintaining an equal quality for foods that are manufactured by the same company or sold under the same brand.

The note by Hungary and Slovakia and sent to the AGFISH committee confirms that food safety is not being compromised.

“Food safety non-compliances have not been detected, but certain differences in the quality of some products have been identified,” it says, and industry experts have told FoodNavigator in the past that the issue is “ethically problematic but not illegal”.

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