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Europe’s ‘food apartheid’: are brands in the east lower quality than in … – The Guardian

When Boris Yeltsin visited the United States in 1989, he was said to have been amazed at the variety of food he saw in a Texan supermarket. The cornucopia of products, unheard of behind the iron curtain (or at best, poorly reproduced), was said to have shattered the future Russian president’s faith in the Soviet system.

For most countries under that system, the iron curtain long ago gave way to membership of the EU and its single market. Yet consumers and politicians in the east remain convinced that goods sold in western Europe – even well-known brands made by multinationals – are of superior quality to those sold under the same branding in their countries.

Many thousands of Czech citizens shop over the border in Austria and Germany to find better food, drink or clothes. Meanwhile shops such as Müller, a German chain, do a roaring business in Slovenia and elsewhere – in part, it is said, because they sell brands produced in western factories, rather than those produced closer to home.

Leaders in the east of Europe have latched on to the issue. The right-wing prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, has described the difference in quality as the “the biggest scandal of the recent past”. Bulgaria’s leader, Boyko Borissov, suggested the differences amount to a food apartheid.

Until now, those complaints appeared to be falling on deaf ears. But this week that changed when, in his annual State of the Union speech, the European commission president, Jean Claude Juncker, warned it was no longer tolerable for those in the east to be sold inferior food and drink.

“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,” Juncker said. “Slovaks do not deserve less fish in their fish fingers, Hungarians less meat in their meals, Czechs less cacao in their chocolate.”

In an interview with the Guardian from her office in the Berlaymont, Věra Jourová, the European commissioner responsible for justice and consumers, goes further. There have been years of deception, she says, and the food and drink industry has been covering its tracks by seeking to ridicule those who complained about the issue.

“We still see that people from Hungary go to Austria every week to buy things – and this is not just for the prices but the quality of products,” Jourová says. “We see the growing dissatisfaction and frustration of people who feel the need to buy things abroad – and we say for the first time clearly: this is unfair commercial practice.”

Jean Claude Juncker during his State of the Union speech.

Jean Claude Juncker during his State of the Union speech: ‘In a Union of equals, there can be no second class consumers.’ Photograph: Christian Hartmann/Reuters

The commissioner’s words are just what Slovenia’s prime minister, Miro Cerar, has been waiting to hear. In his office overlooking the green-topped mountains that surround Slovenia’s capital Ljubljana, he tells the Guardian: “I don’t believe the people in east Europe are different to west Europe. Everyone deserves the highest food quality.”

Asked whether the Slovenian people and others in the east have been misled, Cerar is in little doubt: “To some extent, definitely. Sometimes it is not enough to put everything on the labels.

“I believe sometimes you can clearly see the reasons for such unacceptable practices is simply to gain more profit,” the prime minister claims. “This is what the companies usually try to do. But anything essential for quality of life must be brought under control.”

Slovenia is the latest country in eastern Europe to carry out extensive tests in an effort to prove that multinational companies have been fobbing off eastern consumers with poorer-quality products for many years.

Some of the products tested in the recent Slovenia study.

Some of the products tested in the recent Slovenia study. Photograph: ZPS

This June, the Slovenian consumer association (ZPS) examined pairs of 32 products sold in Slovenia and Austria. It claims to have identified 10 products where there was a difference in quality, with the Slovenian version being lower in each of these cases.

“We used a sensory board of six-to-eight trained experts, all of whom have a better palate than most people,” explains Nika Kremic, a food expert at ZPS.

One of the products randomly tested was Milka bar, a snack owned by US giant Mondelēz International (formerly Kraft foods), which also owns Cadbury. And if the test results alone don’t convince, then the actions of one apparently light-fingered tester were telling.

“The Austrian chocolate bar has gone!” exclaims Kremic as she empties out a bag full of food samples – half of them bought from supermarkets over the border in Graz, Austria, and half from local stores in Ljubljana.

“The Milka look the same,” says Kremic, showing pictures of the samples, “but if you look at the ingredient list – of which only 10% of people do – there is an additive in the Slovenian Milka not present in Austrian Milka. This isn’t hidden, but you need to read it in the small print.”

Kremic points out the testers found other, more subtle differences too. “We also did a taste test, a qualitative descriptive analysis, and a deep sensory research – and again they found a difference,” she says. “The difference was small but it was statistical – in sweetness, brightness, colour and creaminess, too. It’s not just subjective [about taste].”

Milka stridently refutes these claims, suggesting one of the bars may have been manufactured under an old recipe. A spokesperson said its bars are all made the same, as other tests in eastern Europe have confirmed, adding that Milka hasn’t had sight of the full findings from the Slovenians.

“We are aware of discussions regarding companies applying different standards to their products sold in central and eastern Europe,” said the spokesperson. “The trust of consumers is vital, so this is not something we would ever do ourselves. In the case of Milka, we were pleased that this consistent quality was confirmed publicly in the recent government laboratory tests in central Europe, which was reported in subsequent media coverage.”

Other brands highlighted by the Slovenian study, which was commissioned by the ministry of agriculture, were similarly forthright in their defence when approached by the Guardian.

Coca Cola, whose drink in Slovenian stores was found to contain more sugar and more fructo-glucose syrup than that sold in Austria, says it adapts its original recipe to local tastes. Spar, whose own-brand strawberry yoghurt in Slovenia has 40% less strawberry than the Austrian version, claims it is merely producing what the Slovenians want.

A Lidl discount supermarket store in the Czech Republic.

A Lidl discount supermarket store in the Czech Republic. Photograph: Bloomberg via Getty

Indeed, despite findings from Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Hungary that all suggest poorer quality food and drinks are being sold by multinationals in their countries, the industry hasn’t been in the mood to accept it has done anything wrong.

“The composition of products may sometimes be slightly different between countries for various reasons, but this does not necessarily imply ‘dual’ or ‘inferior’ quality between east and west European markets,” says Florence Ranson, from FoodDrinkEurope, the industry’s lobby group in Brussels. “For example, differences in composition can also found between the UK and France, or between Italy and Sweden.”

The European commission says it is tired of the excuses, however. At the end of this month, the eastern member states will be given the finalised interpretation of the current law to allow them to prosecute with confidence, Jourová says. They will also be given financial assistance in working across borders to clamp down on the multinationals. A new, harmonised testing method will be introduced during a swathe of surveys by member states at the beginning of 2018, after which those who have failed to get in line will face the commission’s wrath.

“We want to make sure once we have the results, they cannot be ridiculed,” Jourová says. “Companies have been making excuses, but I will do my best to force them. I can only use my powers – but I will do it in full.”

Next month , east European governments plan to hold a summit to keep up momentum on this issue. Many leaders believe highlighting the inferiority of food and drink in the east has a second purpose, of potentially even greater value.

When the single market was established, the key way to judge whether economies were successfully converging in the EU was to look at consumers’ purchasing power when it came to buying a pre-established “basket of goods” in the local economy. This was the means used to judge where financial support was necessary.

As purchasing power in the east has increased, in large part due to a reduction in the cost of food, some question marks over the amount of money distributed through support programmes, the common agricultural policy, and other Brussels vehicles for regional funding, have been raised.

Yet wages remain stubbornly divergent in the EU – with the GDP represented by wages on average 7% lower in central and eastern European countries than in the west. The European Trade Union Institute reported this year that the gap between pay in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, and pay in Germany, is bigger today than it was in 2008. In Poland and the Czech Republic, the “productivity reserve”, or the wage gap that could be closed without damaging productivity, is said to vary from 20% to 40%.

The Czech secretary of state for EU affairs, Aleš Chmelař, says his government welcomes the commission’s plans for tests on food quality, as a way to evaluate what eastern Europeans are actually purchasing with their wages – and perhaps keep more EU money flowing into the east of Europe.

“A luncheon meat was tested as part of our study,” Chmelař says. “It contains normal pork in Germany and contains mechanically extracted poultry, a general mixture, in the Czech Republic. In this case, I don’t think you can really argue about taste or preferences.”

He also highlights a washing powder that was found to have significantly lower content of the active formula in his country: “The argument from the company was that the Czechs tended to add more of the formula into the washing machine. This kind of argument feels as if they are not serious, to be completely honest.”

Chmelař says “dozens of thousands” of his compatriots cross borders to attain higher-quality food and goods every year. “We are a landlocked country. Very easily from Prague you travel to Dresden, to Vienna, to Berlin – and you see the difference on a day-to-day basis. You see the quality and the choice is visibly better across the border, very often for a lower price too.”

The Boris Yeltsin of 1989 would not recognise the Europe of 2017, but the governments of the east believe there remains a long way to go.

“In some countries, looking at official statistics relating to purchase power, you can be left with the impression that they have converged quite sufficiently,” Chmelař says. “And this could stop a lot of funding programmes, even though there remains inequality of the marketed goods in terms of quality – and therefore of real living standards.”


Food items on sale in Bulgaria.

Food items on sale in Bulgaria. Photograph: Vladimir Nenov/flickr/Getty Images

Europe’s ‘food apartheid’: are brands in the east lower quality than in … – The Guardian

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