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Food brands 'cheat' eastern European shoppers with inferior products

Multinational food and drink companies have “cheated and misled” shoppers in eastern Europe for years by selling them inferior versions of well-known brands, according to the European commission’s most senior official responsible for justice and consumers.

In an outspoken attack on the corporate giants she claims have been flagrantly breaking the law, the Czech commissioner, Věra Jourová, told the Guardian: “We say for the first time clearly: this is unfair commercial practice. In many cases, yes, I am convinced [the law has been broken] because there is manifest cheating.”

From fruit drinks and fish fingers to detergents and luncheon meats, the eastern versions of brands sold across Europe have repeatedly been found to be inferior in quality to those sold in the west, Jourová said, even when they are wrapped in exactly the same branding.

Věra Jourová, the European commissioner for justice and consumers.
 Věra Jourová, the European commissioner for justice and consumers. Photograph: Alamy

She promised to force multinational companies to stop what she regards as an attempt to mislead consumers in eastern Europe, and said they had been making excuses for too long.

Coca-Cola, whose drink in Slovenian stores was found by researchers there to contain more sugar and more fructo-glucose syrup than that sold in Austria, responded by saying it adapted its recipe to local tastes. Spar, whose own-brand strawberry yoghurt in Slovenia was found to have 40% less strawberry than the Austrian version, said it was merely producing what Slovenians wanted.

Other well-known brands including Lidl, Pepsi and Birds Eye have also been highlighted in recent studies. The companies insisted that where differences had been found in similarly branded products, they had been responding to local demand rather than deliberately misleading consumers.

For the moment, Jourová has promised that the European commision will not “name and shame” the companies involved – but she said she was prepared to do so if they did not change their behaviour. “I will not hesitate to name the brands – and even to encourage people not to buy them. I am quite brave on this.”

Jourová’s comments follow a deep analysis of data collected from across the EU, and an examination of the parameters of the current body of consumer law. In his state of the union speech on Wednesday, the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, signalled that Brussels was now prepared to act – by legally and financially empowering national consumer bodies to investigate and prosecute those who continue to break the law.

A final interpretation of the relevant EU legislation is to be provided to the member states on 28 September. But Jourová said she was convinced the law as it stood had been broken, and no further legislation was required.

“We have seen the growing dissatisfaction of people who feel the need to buy things abroad in order to have fish fingers that will contain fish meat, or orange juice that will contain oranges … The frustration is growing and we should do something against it.”

Until now, Jourová said, the food industry had undermined the case against it by questioning the validity of member states’ complaints, and making light of the problem because of the lack of direct health implications. “For a long time the issue was ridiculed [as unimportant] – but this is about the equal treatment of consumers,” the commissioner said.

“I have spoken to representatives of traders and producers and they keep producing the same argument: they are adapting the product for the national taste, and they are producing products for local markets using local products. Or for detergents, they say they are adapting the product for the water because there is hard and soft water.”

A single testing method is now being established for national consumer bodies, Jourová said, to ensure the industry can no longer avoid accountability. “Whenever there are tests made, [the companies] question whether they are relevant, whether they use the right methodology, whether they are comparable. We want to make sure that once we have the results, they cannot be ridiculed.”

She added that while the industry had taken a positive step by establishing a code of conduct in response to the commission’s concerns, this did not go far enough.

“Why do we need a code of conduct to obey the law?” she said. “I have made it quite clear there are several ways to solve this problem. My ideal solution is to increase the quality of the food. The second best is to rename the brands [in the east] so that people are not misled – but that’s not my preferred option. I don’t like to have these differences.”

Slovenia’s prime minister, Miro Cerar.
 Slovenia’s prime minister, Miro Cerar. Photograph: Akos Stiller/Bloomberg via Getty Images




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