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22nd Feb 2020

EU study: no evidence of 'East vs West' food discrimination

  • The Joint Research Centre compared the composition of products sold across 19 EU member states (Photo: Bernard Hermant)

A study comparing the ingredients of food products across the EU on Monday (24 June) found there was no evidence that citizens in eastern EU member states are being sold products of inferior quality - despite officials as senior as EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker championing the issue.

Analysing 71 different products, "no consistent trend of differentiation of products specific to certain geographical regions could be observed," said the report published on Monday (24 June).

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  • In 2017, then Slovak prime minister Robert Fico (r) managed to convince European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker to come out against perceived lower food quality standards in eastern EU states (Photo: Flickr/eu2016sk)

The lack of evidence of such an 'East v West' problem flies in the face of EU commission politicians who adopted the fight against so-called 'dual food' standards as a "European issue" just two years ago.

Initially, the commission was careful not to get involved.

It was an issue that was purely about "the perception by consumers in the member states involved that they were not being treated equally", EU commissioner for consumer affairs, Vera Jourova said according to minutes in a March 2017 meeting of commissioners.

There was only anecdotal evidence, the commission said, until Slovak prime minister Robert Fico successfully lobbied European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker at a meeting in mid-2017.

Following this meeting, Fico said, standing next to Juncker, that the commission acknowledged that a "serious problem" existed.

Fico, and some of his colleagues from central and eastern Europe, inspired Juncker to even mention the issue in his annual State of the European Union speech that year.

"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.

Jourova also claimed in September 2017 that - compared to a few months before - "more evidence" had surfaced that the alleged practice of 'dual food quality' existed in Europe.

However, the study which the commission requested from its Joint Research Centre (JRC), now says that "no indication of consistent differentiation of products related to certain geographical regions of the participating member states was observed".

The analysis

Data about the composition indicated on product labels were taken from products in 19 member states (Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and The Netherlands).

The study did find that in nine percent of the surveyed products that were marketed with the identical front package, the composition in at least one of the 19 surveyed countries was different.

Another 22 percent of products had similar - but not identical - packaging, and differences in composition.

Those differences were however not found along East v West fault lines.

"The results are mixed: while I am happy that they found no evidence of an East-West divide in the composition of branded food products, I am worried that they uncovered up to one third of tested products having different compositions while being identically or similarly branded," said Tibor Navracsics, the EU commissioner responsible for the JRC.

However, the JRC study noted that it was "inappropriate to conclude by inference that the findings are also valid for the whole population of branded and private label foods on the EU market".

The report said it will be followed up by "sensory testing by expert panels" in the following months.

Before the whole issue was raised to the political level, commission civil servants held a discussion about 'dual food quality' in March 2017.

Minutes of that meeting, released at the request of EUobserver, showed at least one civil servant warning against launching any study.

"The process would be too long and the sample used would be too small to be representative of the situation on the market," the commission employee was quoted as saying.

This is exactly the caveat which the JRC put in its report released on Tuesday.

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