Striding down a supermarket aisle in Munich, chances are that your eye will fall on products that you would have a hard time finding in the same supermarket in Bratislava. But this will not be the only difference. For several years now, consumers in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) have complained about the inferior quality of products, particularly foodstuffs, offered to them compared to those sold to their Western counterparts. Fishsticks with less fish and Nutella containing a lower percentage of cocoa have come to embody this issue in the local media.
In September, the European Parliament approved a resolution calling for a rectification of the so-called “dual quality” of foodstuffs and other products. In the same year, Věra Jourová, the Commissioner responsible for consumer protection, introduced a new methodology that should be used by the Commission and the member states to compare the quality of products sold across borders. She has also proposed that “dual quality” be included under the definition of misleading commercial practices, which would allow national consumer authorities to investigate and fine companies that sell products of significantly different quality under the same brand in different member states. This proposal has met with opposition from the food industry as well as from certain member states.
The industry denies that changes in recipes of identical products are meant to discriminate against consumers from different member states by replacing expensive quality ingredients, such as meat, for cheaper substitutes. According to producers, any differences in the use of ingredients result from brands adapting to local tastes and the demand of the consumers. It is not uncommon that in product testing blindfolded consumers preferred foodstuffs of inferior quality because of their “zestier” taste. For example, according to Jacobs, consumers in one country may demand less caffeine and more sugar in the brand’s instant coffee, while customers elsewhere prefer their coffee stronger and more bitter. By differentiating the product, producers are increasing consumers’ welfare. Banning dual quality, on the other hand, would lead to undesirable homogenization of products across the EU and threaten the existence of regional specialties, argues the food and beverage lobby.
The advocates of stricter regulation do not deny that regional differences in taste exist, but argue that this is not a reason why consumers in some countries should settle for products of inferior quality. Rather than traditional regional products, the issue of dual quality has almost exclusively concerned products from large international brands and store brands sold by supermarket chains operating in multiple countries, such as Kaufland or Billa. They are misleading consumers in Czechia or Hungary when they market products to them whose packaging is identical to products sold in the West but where butter is replaced with palm oil, meat with substitutes, and sugar with artificial sweeteners.
Over the years, national consumer authorities and private consumer agencies in the CEE member states have carried out testing on numerous products. And while they tend to find that between 30 - 50 % of such tested products purchased domestically display lower quality than those bought in the West, the geographical discrepancy in quality between the West and the East is not always clear-cut. For instance, while testing Nutella purchased in several member states, the Czech consumer magazine dTest discovered that the hazelnut spread sold in the Czech Republic and Slovenia contained less cocoa than German Nutella – but so did Nutella bought in Austria and Italy. CEE governments have used these findings to argue that dual food quality affects all member states and should be addressed at the EU level. But the governments of the older member states, particularly Germany, Denmark or the Netherlands, remain cautious and are waiting for the results of a study sponsored by the European Commissions which should be published in early 2019 and assess the quality of products across a larger sample of member states.
The critics of the policy also complain that the Commission’s recent activity in the dual quality row is mere pandering to the CEE member states. While Czech, Slovak, and Bulgarian representatives began to raise the issue of dual quality at the European level as early as 2011, the European Commission, until two years ago, continued to side with the producers and dismiss the issue as justified by variations in consumer preferences across countries. In 2017 the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker finally acknowledged the gravity of the issue and pledged to take measures so that Central and Eastern Europeans no longer feel like the “garbage can of Europe”. Whether the Commission’s change of heart is due to pragmatism, a sudden epiphany, or the CEE lobbying efforts finally bearing fruits is unclear, but it is a fact that the rift between the West and the East has grown wider since 2011 and the Commission as well the Czech Commissioner Jourová need something to appease the CEE member states.
Meanwhile, dual food quality remains a highly sensitive issue in post-communist countries and a very grateful topic for political leaders. Food quality affects nearly everyone, is easy to understand and plays on the feeling Central and Eastern Europeans who worry that they are perceived as second class citizens by Western European producers. But this perception of being cheated goes beyond the issue of dual food quality as it is understood by the Commission and national governments. There is frustration in post-communist countries that right across the border, stores are offering a greater range of products as well as a greater range of quality – for prices that are comparable to if not lower than in the East; while wages have a long way ahead to catch up with Western Europe.
Persistently low incomes and the scarcity they experienced during the forty years of communism, have led CEE consumers, for many years, to choose price (and quantity) over quality, and only recently this has started to change. It is unlikely that European regulation can do much about this larger issue. Until they themselves put sufficient pressure on producers and retailers, CEE consumers are not likely to find dozen different types of Schwarzwalder Schinke on the shelves of their local supermarkets.
Image source: European Parliament