'They're just cheating us': East Europeans decry 'food apartheid' that leaves them with inferior products

Companies and big supermarket chains with outlets in eastern and western Europe deny any double dealing, but consumers and governments in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia and Bulgaria have long been adamant that something was wrong: same-brand foods differ in quality country to country.

'Dual foods' controversy has embroiled entire EU and will take years to resolve

Vera Jourova, EU commissioner in charge of justice, consumers and gender equality, presents 'A New Deal for Consumers' in Brussels, April 11. No more cheating on food content … someday. (Olivier Hoslet/EPA-EFE)

Sometimes, when you move from one country to another, things look, even taste, different.

That was Ilya Kunes's experience when he moved back to the Czech Republic from France. Things definitely tasted different.

Even the same famous brand of Italian spaghetti he had bought in France. That seemed odd. He checked. His Czech-bought spaghetti contained a far smaller percentage of expensive Durum wheat than the French variety.

When Kunes, who had lived for years in France, cooked his Czech-bought noodles, he found himself eating not spaghetti "al dente" but a gluey mush.

Welcome, Ilya, to the world of "dual food" colonialism.

Officially, it didn't exist. Companies and big supermarket chains with outlets in the east and the west of Europe have denied any double dealing. But consumers and governments in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia and Bulgaria have long been adamant that something was wrong.

They were proved right, thanks largely to tests by laboratories in their own countries.

"The companies claim that people in the east have different tastes," Kunes said. "That's ridiculous. They're just cheating us, and making an extra profit on cheaper food."

Tulip luncheon meat reportedly contained pork in Germany but only fat and scraps of chicken in the Czech Republic. (Tulip Food Co.)

He's certainly right about companies insisting they're only responding to local tastes.

Spar, an international network of supermarkets founded in the Netherlands, defended its own-brand strawberry yogurt in Slovenia, which has 40 per cent less strawberry than the Austrian version. It claims it is merely producing what the Slovenians want.

Consumer authorities will finally get teeth to punish the cheaters. It cannot be cheap to cheat- EU Commissioner Vera Jourova

That pales in comparison with a German supermarket pizza sold with an Edam and mozzarella cheese topping in Germany and something concocted from vegetable oil next door in the Czech Republic.

It was the same with Tulip luncheon meat. It contained pork in Germany but only fat and scraps of chicken in the Czech Republic.

"In this case, I don't think you can really argue about taste or preferences," said Ales Chmelar, the Czech secretary of state for EU affairs.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, left, has likened dual food to apartheid. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker agrees: 'Slovaks do not deserve less fish in their fish fingers.' (Stephanie Lecocq/EPA-EFE)

Tests in a Prague laboratory of 21 products showed only seven sold in Germany and Austria were the same as in their eastern neighbours.

European politicians, after years of ignoring the issue, have suddenly become the eastern consumers' friends. The tide was clearly turning when the Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, in May 2017, likened the practice to food apartheid.

"Maybe this is a remnant of apartheid — for some, food should be of higher quality, and for others, in Eastern Europe, of lower quality," Borissov said.

Then the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, jumped on the bandwagon. In cadences echoing those of Abraham Lincoln, he proclaimed in his "state of the union" address on Sept. 13, 2017: "Slovaks do not deserve less fish in their fish fingers, Hungarians less meat in their meals, Czechs less cacao in their chocolate."

The industry response the next day to Juncker was to suggest the problem was exaggerated, and besides, the differences weren't limited to east and west.

"The composition of products may sometimes be slightly different between countries for various reasons, but this does not necessarily imply 'dual' or 'inferior' quality between east and west European markets," said Florence Ranson, of FoodDrinkEurope, the industry's lobby group in Brussels.

"For example, differences in composition can also be found between the U.K. and France, or between Italy and Sweden."

The battle remained one of words until Vera Jourova, the EU's commissioner for justice and consumer rights, pushed through a declaration that the EU would insist on equal standards for the same brands across Europe.

Jourova is from the Czech Republic.

"In a globalized world where the big companies have a huge advantage over individual consumers, we need to level the odds," Jourova said, announcing the new policy on April 11.

"Consumer authorities will finally get teeth to punish the cheaters. It cannot be cheap to cheat."

But the EU is a lumbering bureaucratic centipede when it comes to such matters. Change will come in many slow steps.

You can say it is slow. But the legislation must be of high quality and above all enforceable.- Michaela Sojdrova, EU member

In May, the European Commission offered member states a methodology for testing multinational brands to provide proof and expose "dual food" culprits.

The next six months will be taken up with doing those tests on an experimental basis to check their accuracy. The next step will be for the European Parliament to debate the European Commission's "directive on unfair commercial practices."

Then the relevant ministers from each EU country must be consulted.

And finally, each country must pass legislation in line with the directive to give it teeth.

One Czech member of the European Parliament, Michaela Sojdrova, estimates the new dawn of equal food won't come until the beginning of 2020.

"You can say it is slow," she said. "But the legislation must be of high quality and above all enforceable."

Of course. Seen that way, what's a year or two more before the end of "food apartheid"?

Meanwhile, to avoid eating gluey mush, Ilya Kunes will have to stock up on his favourite Italian pasta in Paris. It could be a couple of years before the Durum wheat count reaches the same level in Prague.

About the Author

Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.