Eastern European politicians are starting a war on food. They are recycling old claims that western manufactures are dumping inferior products on them. The EU needs to take these concerns seriously.
Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico is putting more pressure on the European Union to police and harmonize food standards across the entire EU. He has even threatened sanctions against foreign food manufactures if the European Commission doesn't take action, even though competition rules forbid such actions.
He joins a growing chorus including the Czech Republic which also lodged official complaints after tests found differences in the ingredients that multinational food companies use in products sold to Czechs compared to that of their western neighbors.
Agriculture Minister Marian Jurecka recently said tests carried out by his ministry and the University of Chemistry and Technology showed products in Czech supermarkets often had less of the main ingredients than the version sold in Germany, such as frozen fish sticks with less fish.
Much more than just Nutella
The Visegrad Group, an alliance consisting of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland, see this as an example of their second-class status compared with the European bloc's western members.
This "double standards" controversy has struck a raw nerve and become a hot-button issue in the region where western foods used to be a luxury that could only be bought with foreign currency in special shops.
Consumer groups have long complained that popular international brands use poorer-quality ingredients in products sold in central and eastern Europe; and not without reason since the ex-communist countries have a long history of poor quality products being unloaded on them.
However, up to this point they have had little recourse to complain because the EU only requires that the packaging contain a clear list of all ingredients, not that all products must be exactly the same.
What's in it?
Companies that sell products in different countries have repeatedly said they cater to local tastes by tweaking recipes to suit distinctive palates.
In the Czech Republic, Coco-cola uses fructose-glucose syrup instead of natural sugars, but does the same in Spain and America.
Denmark's Tulip Food Co sells canned "luncheon meat" in the Czech Republic that contains mechanically separated chicken meat along with pork. The German version doesn't include the chicken, comparison tests showed.
A Tulip spokesman said: "The canned meat products from Tulip are popular around the world and come with a lot of different recipes - taking into account the different preferences regarding taste, market demands and prices."
Something else in the mix
Yet some see the labeling of various foods as "less creamy" or "less complex" to be a distraction from other domestic problems.
Overall food is about 25 percent cheaper in the Czech Republic than in Germany, according to Eurostat, though this partly reflects lower local costs and living standards. Nonetheless, many Czechs cross the border regularly to shop in Germany or Austria.
But besides offering a distraction at home, the issue also has a bigger dimension. This battle is a "war horse" for populist governments wanting "to prove that the European Union is incapable of guaranteeing the equal treatment of its citizens," according to analyst Antony Galabov of the New Bulgarian University.
Whatever ingredients are used, European Union leaders ignore this latest east-west divide at their peril. Many eastern Europeans fear that their concerns are no longer being taken seriously in Brussels. A few small measures may help regain trust and reinvigorate their lagging enthusiasm for the EU.
tr/uhe (Reuters, AFP, Economist)