Many multinational companies offer consumers in Poland food of lower quality and with different ingredients than on Western markets, Rzeczpospolita daily reported, citing Poland's Central Auditing Office (NIK).
“Tests carried out on products available on Polish and Western European markets have shown dual food quality ”Krzysztof Kwiatkowski, NIK's head told the newspaper. “Further intensive inspections and awareness campaigns are needed as consumers are largely oblivious to the problem” he added.
From 2014 to 2017, the provincial offices of the Polish Trading Standards Association (IH) carried out a total of 48,000 inspections. “It emerged that 38 percent of the tested product batches from nearly half of the inspected shops failed to meet national norms and EU directives” NIK said.
A practice all over CEE
Poland is not alone in its concern. Investigations by other governments in Central and Eastern European (CEE) have also found that multinational companies sell well-known products made with lower quality ingredients in the EU’s newer member states while wrapping them in exactly the same branding and packaging used in Western Europe.
Bulgaria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Croatia have all published studies revealing examples of animal fats being substituted with fats of plant origin, use of added sweeteners instead of sugar, lower meat content and use of materials with lower proportion of fat.
Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov accused the EU of “food apartheid”, while Janos Lazar, a Hungarian politician and Member of Parliament described the practice as “the biggest scandal of the recent past”.
EU Justice and Consumers Commissioner Vera Jourova (pictured below) in an interview with The Guardian in 2017, spoke publicly on the practice, saying that corporations have “cheated and misled” shoppers in eastern Europe for years by selling them inferior versions of well-known brands.
“We say for the first time clearly: this is unfair commercial practice. In many cases, yes, I am convinced [the law has been broken] because there is manifest cheating.”
Meanwhile food industry companies have claimed that the differences in ingredients respond to changes in consumer tastes in different countries. Adjusting products and services to local tastes, expectations and prices is a standard procedure for multinational companies and is legal under EU law.
However, there have been growing efforts by some Member States to question the legality of such practices, owing to concerns that it could be misleading to consumers, who may assume that a product sold under a certain brand within the EU internal market is the same, and who have no practical means of checking whether this is true or not.
According to The Guardian, brands implicated in "dual-food" scandal like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, HiPP baby food, Birds Eye, Lidl and Spar have all denied accusations of selling lower-quality branded goods in eastern Europe.
EU takes action against “dual food”
When the scandal first erupted, the European Commission initially said food quality was not one of its competences, unlike food safety. But in April 2018, following severe the criticism from leaders in CEE member states, the EU's executive arm, announced it would prohibit dual quality food across the bloc.
“We will step up the fight against dual food quality. We have amended the Unfair Commercial Practice Directive to make it black and white that dual food quality is forbidden” Jourova told journalists. “This will give the national authorities the tool they have asked for to end this practice” European commission’s most senior official responsible for justice and consumers added.
The EU directive is giving member states the power to brand “dual standard” foods as illegal
and should be approved before the elections to the European Parliament this spring. Under the new directive, products bearing the same branding but containing different ratios of ingredients will only be allowed on sale if the food company can prove that the taste preferences in one part of Europe differ from those in another area.
Romania is chairing the EU Council which could mean an optimistic change in terms of the fight for same-quality food standards in CEE.