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Dual quality products: Still an East vs. West debate?

Brno, Czech Republic – A long-standing claim and source of frustration among Central and Eastern European countries, including the Visegrad Group, concerns the dual (understand, lower) quality of products found in their grocery stores in comparison with those customers can buy in Western Europe’s supermarkets.

This matter, that came into the spotlight a few years ago, left consumers, politicians and business retailers in the region under the impression that they were being mistreated by Western corporations and, ultimately, by the EU that failed to act on it. This alone further strengthened the widespread idea within many Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, and Hungarians – among others from the latest EU expansion wave – that they were being treated as “second-class citizens” compared to older member states. And thus, effectively added grist to the mill of those pointing to an ever-lasting and growing “East-West divide”.

On the 24th of June, the European Commission released results from a long-awaited study on the issue of dual quality food in the EU. European experts found that the situation is worse than initially anticipated, with more than one-third of products throughout the bloc having a lower quality composition despite similar to identical packing across the states.

However, the study also made the case that it was inconclusive on whether this was an exclusive problem of Central and Eastern European countries, hopefully bringing the debate EU-wide. With these new results, does the ‘West’ vs ‘East’ perspective still hold up for the topic of dual quality food? Will it push EU member states to find common ground to tackle the problem, or continue to be used by politicians to highlight and strengthen divisions within the EU?

The EU Commission’s findings on dual quality food

The EU Commission’s report, differing from previous studies on dual quality products, many of which took place in Central and Eastern European countries, laid out the groundwork for a new EU-wide product testing methodology in order to successfully assess dual quality products in Europe.

Nineteen EU states provided data regarding product labels, nutrition composition, package appearance and so on, including ten Central and Eastern European countries. This study investigated a grand total of over 1,380 samples of 128 food products, including items such as condiments, confectionery, soft drinks, but also baby food and formula, beer, coffee, and many others.

The European Commission concluded that 23% of tested products were identical in both appearance and composition. 31% had a different composition with very similar to identical packaging, while 27% of them had a different composition and different packaging.

EU study result
EU study results on packaging similarity versus product composition. / Source: European Commission

The European Commission’s study also included plans for new EU regulations to tackle dual quality products like the establishment of guidelines for EU states to properly apply EU consumer protection laws and ensure their enforcement by companies, businesses, producers and retailers in violation.

A game changer for the long-standing debate is that the study found no consistent pattern of regional differentiation and discrimination: rather than the simple expression of an “East-West divide”, the EU Commission pointed to an extensive, widespread, all-around system of malpractices of companies and retailers within the bloc.

How the issue plays out in Central Europe

Citizens and leaders of the Visegrad Group (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary) have long known about and slammed the practice of dual quality products, well aware that right past the border into countries such as Germany and Austria lie products with higher quality. In fact, this also explains the widespread practice of citizens from, say, Slovakia or the Czech Republic to cross the border into their German and Austrian neighbors to shop for higher-quality goods.

Many tests have been made within the last few years in Central and Eastern Europe. In 2016, Hungary and Slovakia carried out wide-ranging tests on food products in their supermarkets to compare them with the similarly branded products in Austria. These studies overwhelmingly proved that Slovak and Hungarian markets had lower quality products in comparison to Austria. A widely used and cited example from these tests are fish sticks, which contained 58% of fish in Slovakia while the same brand had 65% of fish right across the border in Austria.

Although taking a few years to gain traction and visibility, this divisive issue wasn’t ignored by politicians and EU officials. The topic of dual quality goods has become center stage within the past two years, although gaining early awareness in as early as 2013. EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, after being careful not to weigh in on the issue, eventually vowed to make it a top priority of his mandate and responded in anger at the claims of production of lower quality food for Central and Eastern Europe: “In a Union of equals, there can be no second class consumers. 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.”

Central European politicians expressed their anger by pointing their fingers towards the ‘West’. In the Czech Republic, then Minister of Agriculture Marian Jurečka said that the Czech Republic was not “Europe’s garbage can”, and the citizens deserved the same quality of food as their Western neighbors.

New laws were introduced in Czechia to target companies that were found in violation of sending lower quality products to Czech markets, possibly resulting in a fine of up to 50 million crowns (around 2 million euros). The issue of dual quality food is so prevalent in the region – and of course popular for electoral purposes – that it was used as a talking point by all the parties in the Czech Republic in the run-up to the European Parliament elections.

The topic was continuously used and brought forward by many media outlets that Central and Eastern European countries were being cheated. Harsh rhetoric was often used regarding the situation, deeper imprinting into the minds of the population that they were being mistreated – a ‘food apartheid’, according to Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov.

During the V4 Consumer Summit in Bratislava in 2017, then Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo made a statement titled “Against the discrimination of consumers by Western corporations” in which she explicitly stated that dual quality products are especially a problem in Central Europe and “undermines the citizens’ fundamental rights”. Hungary’s Viktor Orban noted that dual quality food could lead to a de-facto two-speed, or multi-speed Europe. In other words, politicians from the whole spectrum jumped on the topic and immediately turned it into a ‘West’ vs ‘East’ topic instead of a wider EU problem.

V4 summit
V4 Consumer Summit in Bratislava, 2017 / Source:

The end of the ‘East’ vs. ‘West’ debate?

Despite the EU results, it’s unlikely the ‘second class citizens’ narrative will die out any time soon. Despite the strides the EU has taken at resolving the issue, Central and Eastern Europeans will need much more to be convinced that they were not specifically singled out and had long, regardless of this specific topic, argued their economies and domestic markets have been exploited and taken advantage of by Western corporations since the 1990’s.

Will they be so quick to believe that it was never a ‘West’ vs ‘East’ issue? This will more than likely remain cemented onto to the towering pile of issues that are, either effectively or imaginatively, dividing ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ Europe.

Some are already skeptical of the new EU study, rather standing by previous studies, and are not shy to express it. Hungarian State Secretary of Food Chain Supervision Róbert Zsigó stated that based on previous Visegrád conducted tests, the phenomenon of lower quality goods in Central and Eastern Europe in fact exists, contrary to the EU Commission report’s claim.

This is where the European Commission needs to step up and make sure that they are successful in tackling the issue. If successful, it very well may be another milestone in breaking down “second-class citizen” fears within Central and Eastern Europe. However, one should not anticipate the breaking down of the ‘East’ and ‘West’ division anytime soon, especially when current politicians thrive on it for short-term political purposes.

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