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When EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker mentioned in his state of the union address to the European Parliament that it is unacceptable that some member states get lower quality products in their supermarket than others, many Central and European citizens must have felt relief.
In their eyes, the Commission is finally addressing the widespread concern of Czechs, Poles, Slovaks or Hungarians that major companies are deliberately selling lower-quality products in their countries than their pretended identical counterparts in France, Belgium or Germany.
Not only did Juncker personally address the issue on what the EU calls “dual food quality”, the Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality, the Czech Věra Jourová also called out companies on this issue and vowed to protect consumers. Jourová said in a video for social media that there will be no “second class citizens in Europe”. The Commission is pledging €1 million to assist local food standard authorities in assessing the situation on the market.
As of now, evidence for the actual existence of dual food quality has yet to be found. Producers have claimed that products only differ due to adaptations to local market demands, by applying levels of fat and sugars to the taste of local communities. For the same reasons that dark beer sells better in Belgium than it does in the Czech Republic, consumers choose products according to their tastes, which often appear to be homogenous. Slamming producers for varying products according to the market is strange to say the least.
Even the study that many Czech politicians point to, which was supposed to prove the existence of dual food quality, was not conclusive. Jan Pivoňka, from the University of Chemistry and Technology Prague, who carried out the research, said that: “The aim of the research was not to show that there are more or less quality products in some countries. Criteria of quality is very subjective.” The researcher pointed to the fact that his study wasn’t there to prove that food in Central and Eastern Europe was of a worse quality.
In the absence of evidence that identical products are produced with lower standards, it raises questions as to how the European Union suddenly discovered this issue, and why it only now rose to relevancy. Back in July, when Czech and Slovak MEPs pressured the Commission on this issue, it fell on deaf ears. As the parliamentary election in the Czech Republic approaches at the end of October, this sudden move is clearly politically motivated. The party of Věra Jourová, ANO 2011, is planning to become the strongest party next month, which would make its current controversial figure, Andrej Babiš, the new prime minister. Dual food quality is a widespread belief in countries such as the Czech Republic, and therefore makes for an excellent untenable campaign promise.
With Poland, Hungary, Slovakia or the Czech Republic often feeling ignored by the power machine in Brussels, the Commission couldn’t be more eager to display the virtues of the union by addressing dual food quality, which Jean-Claude proclaimed to be a “European issue”. A display of good intentions in the light of an upcoming election? Certainly so.
Food standard regulations are not a matter of populist campaign rhetoric, as it can have long-lasting consequences on consumers. Further regulations can increase food prices and make it less accessible, especially to low-income consumers. The only sustainable way for market to change is if consumers demand these changes for themselves. Consumers are free to pivot to other products if they aren’t happy with the taste or consistency of some offered brands in their country. The fact that this didn’t happen shows that food producers apparently hit the local median taste with their regionalised strategy of ingredients.
Commissioner Jourová also brings up rules and regulations applying to dual food quality, yet it is hard to tell what exactly she means by that, nor what the Commission even suggests to do. As far as the neutral observer is concerned, the EC is promising to an electorate that doesn’t care about the European institutions, to solve a problem that doesn’t exist through legislation it doesn’t suggest.
Going ghost-hunting for problems a month before the election of an important Central European country: one might almost suggest it could be populism.