Central Europe bemoans raw deal from big food firms

Several states want EU to ensure products are of equal taste and quality across bloc

Shoppers in Lidl  in Prague: Some food companies have said it is common practice to use different ingredients for same-name products in different countries. Photograph: Martin Divisek/Bloomberg

Shoppers in Lidl in Prague: Some food companies have said it is common practice to use different ingredients for same-name products in different countries. Photograph: Martin Divisek/Bloomberg

 

Central European states want the European Union to ensure that major food manufacturers are not supplying them with products that are less tasty and of lower quality than those on sale further west.

The Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia complain they are getting a raw deal from powerful corporations, which are not obliged by EU law to make sure that foods with the same name and packaging are identical across the bloc.

“With some products, we are in fact Europe’s garbage can,” said Czech agriculture minister Marian Jurecka.

“Our primary aim is to change the EU legislation, so that if an item has the same producer, the same packaging with the same font, so it is the same item at first sight, then it has the same ingredients,” said Mr Jurecka.

He has ordered a study of food available on Czech shelves, similar to those carried out recently by neighbouring countries that have long suspected they are not being supplied with the same products as nearby Austria and Germany.

Slovakia found that half of 22 products bought and tested in its capital, Bratislava, had a different taste and contained different – and cheaper – ingredients to apparently identical foods purchased less than 20km away in Austria.

“We have a single market, and it’s unethical to create two classes of customers,” said Slovak agriculture minister Gabriela Matecna.

Sweeteners and meat content

“The argument that consumers in different regions prefer different tastes won’t stand, because Slovak consumers definitely don’t prefer artificial sweeteners and additives or lower content of meat compared to Austrian products,” she added.

Major food companies have said it is common practice to use different ingredients for same-name products in different countries, and they are obliged by EU law only to ensure that all those ingredients are listed on packaging.

In general, food is considerably cheaper in Hungarian, Czech and Slovak shops than in Germany and Austria, but the controversy has played into the hands of Eurosceptic politicians in central Europe who claim that Brussels and big business see them as the EU’s poor relations.

Hungary’s government said that in recent tests a range of popular foods bought in leading supermarket chains in Hungary and Austria also showed a clear discrepancy in taste and quality.

“This is primarily a moral question, not a legal one,” said Robert Zsigo, an official at Hungary’s agriculture ministry. “Hungarians want fair treatment . . . not double standards.”