New EU Deal Marks the End of Double Food Standards in Europe
After fighting long and hard to reach an agreement, the European Commission passed a set of rules last week that ban identically branded products being sold with different ingredients in different markets. This is largely regarded as a win for Central and Eastern European countries, where so-called dual-quality products were the norm.
The European Parliament and Council have reached a provisional agreement last week that is aimed at securing stronger and better-enforced consumer protection rules. According to the official documents, the deal has been supported by the Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee of the European Parliament, adding to the agreement’s credibility.
The rules, proposed by the European Commission in April last year as part of the new deal for Consumers, were designed in order to curb double standards in consumer products that Central and Eastern European states were fighting against.
The hard-fought agreement ensures that the practice of dual-quality foods – identically branded products being sold with different ingredients in different markets – is finally put to an end. U Justice, Consumer Protection and Gender Equality Commissioner Vera Jourova said last year that the European Commission’s opinion was that such quality differences were “unfair.”
However, the practice of using different or different quality ingredients in what is essentially marketed as the same product isn’t illegal in the EU. Until now, the law only required manufacturers to clearly list the ingredients on the packaging.
As countries such as France, Germany, and the UK haven’t been vocal about the problem, many have pointed out that this is a problem that only pertains to countries in the former communist Eastern Bloc. Officials from Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Bulgaria have pointed out that the unethical practice of food items sold under the same brand being inferior in quality in the “new” EU member states in the east compared with member states in the west.
“Double standards in food products in the European Union have left 100 million people (in the EU’s east) feeling like aborigines,” Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov told a conference on consumer law and consumer protection in Sofia last year.
Borisov’s statement came just days after Sofia’s Agriculture Ministry said that a study found differences in ingredients and prices of some brands of food products between those sold in Bulgaria and in four western EU countries. According to Reuters, Lab tests have shown that some multinational brands use different, often cheaper ingredients in food sold on the east side of Europe’s old Iron Curtain divide than in products sold in adjacent Austria and Germany.
The prevailing answer from the manufacturer accused of such practices was that they were catering to local tastes and preferences. Others have said that different manufacturing circumstances and regulations that differ from state to state are also responsible for the practice.
And while the European Commission decided to step in and resolve the matter due to it being “unfair,” fairness wasn’t the main concern for countries where dual-quality food was the norm. Smuggling goods, especially those made by large, well-known brands, continues to be a prevailing problem in the Balkans. People in EU member states such as Bulgaria and Romania, as well as non-member states such as Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia, have been well aware that most of the brand-name foods and products sold in their supermarkets are inferior in quality when compared to those sold in Germany.
This has led to an increase in illegal imports of food and products from Germany, Austria, and France, which are then sold at flea markets and local bodegas. The damages the countries face from unpaid import fees are minuscule compared to the potential damage these products could cause to consumers. None of the products sold this way are subjected to health and safety checks on import, which is especially dangerous when it comes to food.
But now, the new regulation will force companies that have dual-quality products to inform consumers of the differences in ingredients. According to the draft legislation, obtained by POLITICO, the information must be “easily identifiable” if there is a “significant” difference in the ingredients.
The text, however, isn’t airtight and leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Nevertheless, two European Commission officials who worked on the deal said that the intent wasn’t so much to cover every single point but to scare companies into dropping the most flagrant abuses. “This allows for clear pressure,” one official told POLITICO.
The decision on whether or not to pursue legal action against companies engaged in dual-quality product practices is left to the national consumer authorities. Companies found to be in violation of the rules could face fines up to 4 percent of their annual turnover. Under the draft law, Brussels would monitor the rules’ effect for two years before submitting an analysis to the European Parliament and national capitals. According to the text, if the report deems a legislative proposal necessary, it will be submitted alongside the final verdict.
(Banner image: Christoph Neumueller/Wikimedia Commons)