Food and drink giants ac­cused of sell­ing lower-grade prod­ucts to east­ern Europe

‘Un­fair’ prac­tice breaks law, says se­nior EU of­fi­cial

The Guardian - - NEWS - Daniel Bof­fey Brus­sels

Firms claim they are just adapt­ing to lo­cal tastes

Food and drink com­pa­nies have “cheated and mis­led” shop­pers in east­ern Europe for years by sell­ing them in­fe­rior ver­sions of well-known brands, ac­cord­ing to the Euro­pean com­mis­sion’s most se­nior of­fi­cial re­spon­si­ble for jus­tice and con­sumers.

In an out­spo­ken at­tack on the cor­po­rate giants she claims have been fla­grantly break­ing the law, Czech com­mis­sioner Věra Jourová told the Guardian: “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.”

From fruit drinks and fish fin­gers to de­ter­gents and lun­cheon meats, the east­ern ver­sions of brands sold across Europe have re­peat­edly been found to be of in­fe­rior qual­ity to those sold in the west, Jourová claimed, even when they were wrapped in ex­actly the same brand­ing.

She vowed to “force” multi­na­tion­als to stop what she re­gards as an at­tempt to mis­lead con­sumers in east­ern Europe.

Coca-Cola, whose drink in Slove­nian stores was found by re­searchers there to con­tain more sugar and more fruc­tose-glu­cose syrup than that sold in Aus­tria, re­sponded by say­ing it adapts its orig­i­nal recipe to lo­cal tastes. Spar, whose own­brand straw­berry yo­ghurt in Slove­nia was found to have 40% less straw­berry than the Aus­trian ver­sion, claims it is merely pro­duc­ing what the Slove­ni­ans want.

Other well-known brands high­lighted include Lidl, Pepsi and Birds Eye. The com­pa­nies in­sist that where dif­fer­ences have been found in sim­i­larly branded prod­ucts, they have merely been re­spond­ing to vari­ances in lo­cal de­mand rather than de­lib­er­ately mis­lead­ing con­sumers.

For the mo­ment, Jourová has promised the com­mis­sion will not “name and shame” the com­pa­nies in­volved – but said she is pre­pared to do so un­less they change their be­hav­iour. “I will not hes­i­tate to name the brands – and even to en­cour­age the peo­ple not to buy them. I am quite brave on this.”

Jourová’s com­ments fol­low an anal­y­sis of data from across the EU, and an ex­am­i­na­tion of cur­rent con­sumer laws. In his state of the union speech this week, the Euro­pean com­mis­sion pres­i­dent, Jean-Claude Juncker, sig­nalled Brus­sels was pre­pared to act by le­gally and fi­nan­cially em­pow­er­ing na­tional con­sumer bod­ies to in­ves­ti­gate and pros­e­cute law­break­ers.

A fi­nal in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the rel­e­vant EU leg­is­la­tion is to be pro­vided to the mem­ber states on 28 Septem­ber. But Jourová is con­vinced the law as it stands has been bro­ken, and no fur­ther leg­is­la­tion is re­quired to end dis­crim­i­na­tory poli­cies.

“We have seen the grow­ing dis­sat­is­fac­tion of peo­ple who feel the need to buy things abroad in or­der to have fish fin­gers that will con­tain fish meat, or or­ange juice that will con­tain or­anges … The frus­tra­tion is grow­ing and we should do some­thing against it.”

Un­til now, Jourová said, the food in­dus­try has ques­tioned the va­lid­ity of mem­ber states’ com­plaints, mak­ing light of the prob­lem ow­ing to the lack of di­rect health im­pli­ca­tions. “For a long time the is­sue was ridiculed [as unim­por­tant] – but this is about the equal treat­ment of con­sumers,” the com­mis­sioner said.

“I have spo­ken to rep­re­sen­ta­tives of traders and pro­duc­ers and they keep pro­duc­ing the same ar­gu­ment: they are adapt­ing the prod­uct for the na­tional taste, and they are pro­duc­ing prod­ucts for lo­cal mar­kets us­ing lo­cal prod­ucts. Or for de­ter­gents, they say they are adapt­ing the prod­uct for the water be­cause there is hard and soft water.”

A sin­gle test­ing method is now be­ing es­tab­lished for na­tional con­sumer bod­ies, Jourová said, to en­sure the in­dus­try can no longer avoid ac­count­abil­ity. “We want to make sure that once we have the re­sults, they can­not be ridiculed.”

She added that while the in­dus­try had es­tab­lished a code of con­duct in re­sponse to the com­mis­sion’s con­cerns, this did not go far enough. “My ideal so­lu­tion,” she said, “is to in­crease the qual­ity of the food. The sec­ond best is to re­name the brands [in the east] so that peo­ple are not mis­led – but that’s not my pre­ferred op­tion. I don’t like to have these dif­fer­ences.” The is­sue of so-called “dual food” has been pushed up the agenda thanks to lob­by­ing by states in­clud­ing Bul­garia, Slove­nia, the Czech Re­pub­lic and Hun­gary, which have all pub­lished stud­ies. A fur­ther study, by Croa­tia, is ex­pected this month.

A spokesman for Coca-Cola said: “We oc­ca­sion­ally slightly adapt our bev­er­ages to meet lo­cal con­sumer tastes and pref­er­ences, to source lo­cal in­gre­di­ents or to fol­low lo­cal reg­u­la­tion. Our com­mit­ment to serv­ing bev­er­ages that are high-qual­ity, af­ford­able and taste great is un­wa­ver­ing in more than 200 coun­tries we serve around the world, in­clud­ing Slove­nia.”

A Pep­siCo spokesman said: “Pep­siCo is ded­i­cated to pro­duc­ing high-qual­ity, great-tast­ing prod­ucts in ev­ery mar­ket we op­er­ate.” A spokesman for Spar said: “Our pol­icy is to ful­fil con­sumer wishes, so each Spar coun­try has its own Spar prod­ucts; the recipes are de­vel­oped in the coun­try.”

A spokesman for Lidl said: “To­gether with our sup­pli­ers, we set strict qual­ity spec­i­fi­ca­tions for all of our in­ter­na­tion­ally sold own-brand prod­ucts. These spec­i­fi­ca­tions are the same across all mar­kets that the prod­uct is sold in.”

A spokesman for Birds Eye said it adapted prod­ucts to lo­cal tastes.

Florence Ran­son, of in­dus­try group FoodDrinkEurope, said: “We do take the ac­cu­sa­tions of al­leged dual qual­ity very se­ri­ously. Con­sumers are core to our busi­ness and equally im­por­tant wher­ever they are. We are ac­tive pro­po­nents of the sin­gle mar­ket and the free cir­cu­la­tion of goods … Within this frame, it is nor­mal prac­tice that man­u­fac­tur­ers source in­gre­di­ents lo­cally and adapt to lo­cal tastes. It must also be stressed that what­ever the recipe, our food al­ways meets Euro­pean stan­dards and re­mains the safest in the world.”

Pho­to­graph: Chris Rat­cliffe/ Getty Im­ages

A shop worker in Slove­nia, one of the coun­tries where brands dif­fer from the ver­sions sold in west­ern Europe

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