The Visegrad Four (V4) countries announced at a summit in Warsaw on March 2 that they will ask the European Commission to take “immediate” consumer protection measures to end the differences in the quality of branded food products in EU countries.
The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia have issued a string of damning statements on the issue in the run up to the EU's 60th anniversary summit, to be held in Rome on March 25. The complaints are based on a series of unofficial tests carried out in recent years. The region's governments appear to have jumped on the issue now as a means to promote their populist credentials ahead of the anniversary.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban claims Central Europeans are treated as “second-class citizens” when it comes to food products. Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico said the V4 urges the European Commission to adopt measures to stop this practice “without delay”.
According to Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka "there should only be one quality across the EU for all, and it should be the top quality”. Prague says it has already debated the issue with the European Commission and tabled the theme at the agriculture council.
Poland, the largest economy in the V4, also added its support. Warsaw said it joins the demand that the EU oblige retailers to inform consumers about the quality of all products, and whether they differ from supplies to Western Europe.
The commission says it sees no need for a legislative change. EU law demands only that the ingredients in a product are clearly marked.
“Consumers must be accurately informed and must not be misled as to the composition of the foods they buy,” a European Commission spokeswoman said. However, national regulatory offices are free to act if manufacturers are misleading consumers, she argued.
The fuss has been kicked off by media reports, it appears. Hungarian daily Magyar Idok ran a report last month that highlighted a survey carried out by national food safety authority Nebih comparing 24 sample products sold in both Austria and Hungary.
The tests claim that the Nutella brand of chocolate spread sold in Hungary is “less creamy” than the Austrian equivalent, and Coca Cola tastes worse in Budapest than Vienna. However, as Coca Cola Hungary moved to explain that the difference in taste may be down to its sourcing of local ingredients, it emerged that the survey – picked up by a newspaper launched by the ruling Fidesz party 18 months ago – was carried out three years old and relied on the opinions of three people.
The report hit the headlines the same day that the Nolimpia referendum campaign had pushed the Hungarian government into a humiliating withdrawal of Budapest’s bid to host the 2024 Olympic Games. The government quickly announced that it will organise a survey of 100 products to establish whether Hungary really does get a raw deal from branded food manufacturers.
Janos Lazar, head of the Prime Minister’s Office, has repeatedly accused multinationals of flooding Central & Eastern Europe with “food-industry rubbish”. This will be “the greatest scandal of the coming years”, he added dramatically.