The European Union has today issued guidelines to help national authorities determine whether a company is breaking laws by selling food or drink products of dual quality in different countries.
Speaking today at the launch of the guidelines, EU commissioner for justice, consumers and gender equality Věra Jourová said the issue ‘concerns tens of products, maybe hundreds of products’.
The new guidance says there could be a breach of EU consumer laws if consumers are not informed about the difference in a product between two countries and if the difference affects their buying behaviour.
During his State of the Union speech earlier this month, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker criticised the dual standards of food quality, saying ‘there can be no second-class consumers’.
The Food Information Regulation requires that consumers are given truthful and sufficient information about a particular food product. For example, food labels must list of all of the ingredients contained in a product.
Furthermore, the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive prohibits marketing identically branded products in a way that has the potential to mislead consumers.
Based on the legislation, the new guidance establishes a step-by-step approach for consumers and food authorities to identify whether producers are in breach of these laws.
The European Commission said that the key question for consumers is: ‘Would I still have purchased this product if I knew that there was a significant difference compared to this product I had tasted in another member state?’
Commissioner Jourová said: “We have had many complaints of consumers noticing that the coffee, drinks or fish fingers that they buy in their local supermarket is of lower quality than the supermarket across the border.
“These products are presented in exactly the same packaging but for instance the coffee contains less caffeine and more sugar, fish fingers contain more meat in one country than another.
“So when I say I take this issue very seriously, I mean it.”
EU commissioner for justice, consumers and gender equality Věra Jourová launching the guidelines
European food industry body FoodDrinkEurope approved the new guidance, with a spokesperson stating: “This, together with the work of the EU’s Joint Research Centre towards a rigorous and trustworthy harmonised testing methodology, should contribute to a better understanding of the facts, evidence and scope of the issue.
“We look forward to continue engaging with the Commission to establish an open dialogue with other parties at stake, including member states and consumer organisations.
The issue of dual quality has been prevalent in Central and Eastern Europe with a recent study from the Czech Agriculture Ministry revealing that foods sold with the same packaging and under the same brand vary from one state to another.
Indeed, German biscuit producer maker Bahlsen replaced palm oil with butter in its Choco Leibniz biscuits, as prescribed by the original German recipe. The company said that its strategy has been to adapt its products to the requirements of each market, with some having different recipes, packaging and weight.
In a statement, the company said that as a result of globalisation there is an ever increasing expectation that products should ‘meet that same standards’ in all the markets they are sold.
In addition to the new guidelines, the European Commission is working on a methodology to improve food product comparative tests so that member states can discuss the issue on a sound and shared scientific basis. The Commission has made €1 million available to its Joint Research Centre to develop this methodology.
The Commission is also financing further work on the collection of evidence and enforcement by offering €1 million to member states for the financing of studies or enforcement actions.
© FoodBev Media Ltd 2020