East Europeans get Brussels ally in food quality fight

BRUSSELS/BRATISLAVA (Reuters) - European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said on Thursday that apparently identical food products should not be sold with inferior ingredients in eastern Europe, siding with those who say the practice amounts to discrimination.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker arrives for a meeting of the College of Commissioners at the European Commission in Brussels, Belgium July 26, 2017. REUTERS/Eric Vidal

The issue has become pressing for central and eastern European Union members who already fear losing influence within the EU as Germany, France and other western states consider closer integration.

Several studies have shown that many of the foods sold by multinational producers in eastern Europe contain cheaper, lower-quality ingredients than the identically branded versions sold in the west.

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico met with Juncker on Thursday on behalf of the Visegrad countries, which also include the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland.

“I don’t like the idea that there would be some kind of second category in Europe,” Juncker told a joint news conference.

“We’ll pursue our common intention to put an end to this discriminatory way of providing Slovak people with food products and other goods of lesser quality.”

Juncker said he would issue guidelines on how to interpret the existing food safety directive in September, but did not rule out new legislation.

Food companies have defended their practice, saying different markets have different tastes and that ingredients are listed accurately. They also note that consumers are for the most part less wealthy in the east than the west. Food is about 25 percent cheaper in the Czech Republic than in Germany.

However, many consumers in central Europe have become used to shopping across the border in Germany or Austria, and have come to expect identical products back home.

Countries from the Czech Republic and Slovakia to Bulgaria and Romania have found many products differ widely from those sold in western markets.

In Czech tests published this month, only three out of 21 products surveyed had identical ingredient lists to the version sold in Germany. In some cases, meat products had less meat or cheaper kinds of meat, and fish sticks had less fish. In some cases, butter in biscuits is replaced with palm oil.

The Czech agriculture minister has said his country is tired of being Europe’s “garbage can”.

Fico said he strictly refused double standards on food quality and appreciated that Juncker saw the issue as a European one, not merely a regional one.

Writing by Jason Hovet; Editing by Kevin Liffey