Food and drink giants accused of selling lower-grade products to eastern Europe
‘Unfair’ practice breaks law, says senior EU official
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.”
A shop worker in Slovenia, one of the countries where brands differ from the versions sold in western Europe