Saturday

23rd Feb 2019

EU 'dual quality' food probe to visit Hungary

  • Scientist at the Joint Research Centre in Belgium (Photo: Peter Teffer)

EU researchers will visit supermarkets in Hungary next week to test a new methodology aimed at spotting any quality differences in the same food products offered for sale in richer and poorer member states.

The tests are part of the European Commission's response to the issue of 'dual food quality', which has been raised by leaders from several central and eastern European countries.

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"Consumers in certain parts of Europe have the feeling that the composition, or certain quality-related aspects of food, that is offered on their market, is not the same as the food that is offered under the same brand in other member states," said Franz Ulberth, head of fraud, detection and prevention at the commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC).

The suspicion that consumer product companies are intentionally and consistently shipping inferior versions of their products to eastern member states is not proven - but is a stubborn issue that refuses to go away.

After political leaders managed to convince commission president Jean-Claude Juncker that the dual food quality issue was an EU issue, he tasked the JRC to develop a common methodology to investigate the matter – until then member states had conducted investigations with varying standards.

The JRC will "frame the dimension of the problem", Ulberth told journalists this week, when they visited the institute's location in Geel, some 70 kilometres northeast of Brussels.

"Does it occur? What is the magnitude of the differences if they occur? And what member states are concerned?"

"There is at least a perceived problem," Ulberth told EUobserver later.

"What we do not know, is whether such differences occur only between east and west – which would be of course difficult to explain – or whether such differences are quite normal and occur throughout the [European] Union."

"If this is something that is occurring throughout the Union, then of course we could talk to industry why does it happen," said Ulberth.

He noted that it could be the case that companies are adapting ingredients based on preferences of the local consumers.

Blueprint for sampling

The JRC published its rules for how national authorities should select and transport samples last April.

The trip to Hungary will be to put the JRC blueprint to the test, before EU-wide sampling begins. Such pre-tests were already done in Belgium and France.

"We are in the process of organising an EU-wide testing campaign, with the inclusion of as many member states as possible," Ulberth told journalists.

He noted it was important that samples come from all over the EU, which has 28 member states.

"We wish to avoid this confrontation east vs west," said Ulberth.

"Most of the results that we have on the table is mostly – not exclusively, but mostly – related to products sampled in eastern member states and as a comparison with countries like Austria, Germany, and Italy. But we also need to see if such differences occur from north to south."

He said the plan was also to compare different samples of the same products within a country, but that financing is an issue.

"You not only go once to a shop and buy an item, but you do that several times, choosing different geographical locations within the jurisdiction of the country, and possibly also sampling from different production [locations]," said Ulberth.

"Of course that would be the ideal case. Now comes the 'if': If you can afford to do so. Because that will explode costs."

"If you triple, quadruple or quintuple the number of samples, then by the same multiplier you increase costs," the civil servant noted.

"Of course if there is already a differentiation within a country, then to be honest we have another problem," he said.

The samples will be taken by member state authorities, but the analysis will be done by the JRC.

"We are a little bit behind our planned scheme, a little bit, that happens. But we hope to have at least by the end of the year a draft report ready," he added.

Magazine

Dual food quality: a recipe for east-west EU friction

The accusation by some eastern European leaders that food companies were shipping inferior products to the eastern part of the EU has put the European Commission in a bind - leading to a months-long struggle to find a response.

Analysis

Visegrad lobby makes food quality an EU issue

Fico convinced the EU commission chief to take action in the perceived problem of discriminatory food practices, even though the evidence for the phenomenon is anecdotal.

Sluggish procedure against Hungary back on table

EU probes into Hungary and Poland on rule of law and democracy are back on the agenda of EU affairs ministers - but with little guidance from the Romanian presidency, without a clear idea where the procedures are headed.

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