September 26, 2017 / 4:50 PM / a year ago

Fish finger diplomacy: EU raps food brands for cheap tricks

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Responding to complaints in eastern Europe about shoppers being fobbed off with poorer-quality versions of big brand foods, the EU executive issued legal advice for national consumer watchdogs on Tuesday to help stamp out the practice.

“Presenting two different products in the same branded packaging is misleading and unfair to consumers,” Commissioner Vera Jourova, who handles consumer affairs, told reporters. “I am determined to put an end to this practice, prohibited under EU law, and make sure that all consumers are treated equally.”

When leaders of formerly communist states in the east put their complaints on Brussels’ agenda earlier this year, food manufacturers insisted their practices were legal under EU law and were the result of catering to tastes in local markets.

However, the Commission said national authorities charged with enforcing EU rules should take account of two pieces of EU law in particular, one ensuring full listing of ingredients and another barring “marketing of identically branded products in a way that has a potential to mislead consumers”.

The EU executive has also provided financing to improve research on food comparison and enforcement of the rules. EU ministers will meet on the issue in Bratislava on Oct. 13.

In one example of dual standards, Reuters earlier this year found that a major brand of fish fingers was labeled in a shop in the Slovak capital as being made with 58 percent fish, while those in similar packaging a few miles away across the Austrian border stated that they contained 65 percent fish.

The issue has risen to the top table of EU summit politics.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker spoke about the Slovak fish fingers in a keynote speech this month that made proposals to ease tensions with eastern governments, notably Poland and Hungary. Brussels criticizes both countries for refusing to take in refugees and for measures it says limit civil rights.

Editing by Alastair Macdonald

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