Products with the same label are different in Eastern and Western Europe

Róbert Zsigó, State Secretary for Food Chain Supervision at the Ministry of Agriculture talks about the recent V4 cooperation that could end dual food quality in Europe.

Good evening. You are watching the program of the Visegrád Four. “The European Parliamentary elections in May will bring significant changes in the leadership of the EU in Brussels,” said Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki in an interview with Financial Times. His statement is based on the expectations that foresee the rise of nationalist and Eurosceptic parties at the elections, which will have a strong impact on the European Union. On the phone we are connecting with Péter Törcsi, Research Director of the Center for Fundamental Rights. Good evening. Mr. Director, what basis is there for the Polish prime minister’s statement?

Good evening. The Polish prime minister’s statement shows that the anti-immigration parties, or the parties that have a more realistic and skeptical approach towards Brussels, have systematically grown stronger. Austria and Italy are good examples, and so is the Front National in France. And, actually, in the Benelux states as well, parties that are more critical towards the EU decision-making processes have become stronger. In the V4 we see that the parties that are more honest about the EU’s decision making do not belong to the outside of the establishment, but are rather the mainstream, governing parties. These parties are willing to communicate to the electorate the mistakes that have been made by Brussels in a frank and straightforward fashion. From this it can be suggested that at the next EU elections, people will vote for parties that are ready to talk about their countries’ and the continent’s problems honestly and that are not afraid to criticize the current power in Brussels.

That’s right. Going back to Poland, the governing radical party, the Right and Justice (PiS), seems to be the most popular according to opinion polls. Is this a definite answer or reaction from the side of the nation states to Brussels’ politics?

I think that citizens are more and more willing to support the ideas that favor strong nation states against the federalist aspirations. In Poland, this idea is represented by the governing party, the nationalist and conservative PiS, and not by the also rightwing but more liberal Civic Platform. Ever since the 2015 elections, the governing party has been the absolute number one in opinion polls. Right now the PiS has a 13­ to 14% advantage over the next largest party. I think that the governing party and its leader, Morawiecki, have a very comfortable position looking forward to the European Parliamentary elections. Let us not forget that there will be parliamentary elections in October–November in Poland. Therefore, the governing party’s performance at the EU elections is very important, as it can further strengthen the chances of the PiS in the national elections.

As a last point let us talk about Brussels’ reaction to these tendencies. Do you think that the EU or the European Commission will be willing to take into account the tendencies in these member states, for example in Poland?

It certainly will, since the composition of the Commission will change. The current commissioners’ mandates will expire at the time of the EP elections, and the current national governments will delegate the new members. The parties that represent the idea of the federal United States of Europe have failed in many countries, for example, in Austria, Italy, and in almost all of the V4 countries, so the Commission will definitely change, which is good news for our region. Moreover, concerning the composition of the European Parliament, it is likely that the structures that have been solidified in the past decades will change. Therefore, we can expect that there will be realignments both in the Commission and in the Parliament. It is too early to be able to tell which direction things will move in, but I believe that the Polish prime minister’s prediction about the strengthening of the EU-realist or EU-skeptical forces can be taken as given. If we look at national survey data, we can see that the realist and honest parties are enjoying more support than usual. We will see if these hopes become reality at the elections, and if the electorate agrees to this. I think we are close enough to the elections to say with certainty that there will be some kind of restructuring both in the Commission and in the Parliament.

Péter Törcsi, thank you.

According to the experts of the National Food Chain Safety Office, every other Hungarian has experienced a difference between the quality of food of the same brand in Western Europe and in Hungary. In Slovakia, for example, there are less fish in fish sticks, in the Czech Republic, there is less cocoa in chocolate, and in Hungary there is less actual meat in meat products. Even though the dual food quality was first reported by the Visegrad countries to European Union officials, it is also unacceptable for Slovenians, Croats, Romanians, Bulgarians, and Greeks. We'll show you the details.

Fish sticks with fewer fish, soft drinks that are flavored with more artificial sweeteners and are therefore more harmful to health, sweets containing more additives, meat products with lower meat content, and other foods of different quality than in the West in Central Eastern Europe’s grocery stores. Dual food quality was first reported by the Visegrad countries’ government back in 2017, when it turned out that although the packaging is the same, multinational companies often sell poorer quality products, for example, in Hungary than in Austria. Our staff asked Hungarian buyers to what extent they perceive the quality difference.

-      -  To tell the truth, I always buy Hungarian products.

-        - Why?

-       - Because I am convinced that Hungarian products are very good. They are made by Hungarian people and are made very well.

-      - For example, there is a chocolate that has been available in Hungary for some time now. The same chocolate in a certain commercial chain, where the product is brought in directly from the country of origin, the same chocolate is quite different, it has a different texture.

-     -   I think it is not a new phenomenon. The only difference is that earlier these products were not available in Hungary, but people went abroad to buy the better quality. 

Dr. Attila Nagy, Director of the Food Chain Safety Laboratory Directorate of the National Food Chain Safety Office, also considers the indignation of consumers legitimate. When examining samples of products, they often face the dual quality of food.

Sometimes there is a difference that can be perceived with our senses, and the food has fewer good parameters. Sometimes we cannot find out, and it cannot be stated that it is better or worse. Sometimes the replacement of the ingredients actually results in worse quality, for example with the use of additives instead of natural ingredients.

The National Food Chain Safety Office’s comprehensive research in 2017 carried out sensory tests and compared the ingredients on the packaging and other elements of the label. The survey found that in the case of 96 products distributed in Hungary, Italy, and Austria, 71 were found to be different at the expense of Hungarian consumers.

We have found dual quality in many producers’ products. Smaller, milder, or more severe differences were found. It can be said that those who we contacted and those who explained the phenomenon on the manufacturer's side very often explained the difference between the products from a legal point of view or with customer preference and customer expectation. Many of them do not deny that the phenomenon exists; they just explain why it exists. There are some producers who, based on the results of the survey and on the basis of our feedback and discussion, will change the practice and will make one type of product and use one type of recipe in the future.

In addition to Hungarians, it is also unacceptable for Slovenians, Croats, Romanians, Bulgarians, and Greeks that nearly 100 million European citizens have access to poorer quality products because large food manufacturers use double standards for food sold to people in Western and Eastern Europe. In the spring of 2018, the European Commission presented its draft package of amendments to consumer protection legislation, including proposals for dealing with the phenomenon of dual quality.

My guest in the studio is Róbert Zsigó, State Secretary for Food Chain Supervision at the Ministry of Agriculture. Good evening and thank you for accepting our invitation.

Good evening, thank you for your invitation.

I would like to go back to this draft with which I introduced our discussion. Since following the work of the various consumer protection working groups and their negotiations, the provision to terminate the practice of dual quality of food in this particular draft was eliminated. However, a more recent piece of news, particularly from today, shows that thanks to the recent V4 cooperation, following the amendment in December, the Romanian presidency reintroduced the issue of dual quality food in the draft on unfair commercial practices. This action must have required very fast cooperation from the agriculture ministers of the four Visegrád countries. How did the cooperation work?

We can say very much that the issue of dual quality foods is being followed up on by the governments of the V4 countries and the concerned ministers. The fact that we can look for a legal solution at all, and the European Commission is looking for a legal solution to this matter, is entirely due to the V4 countries’ cooperation. Towards the end of the Austrian presidency, in the middle of December, the passages were eliminated from the draft that would qualify it unfair to sell the same product of the same manufacturer in a different composition, in a poorer quality, say in Eastern Europe—and in Hungary—than in Western European countries. At the meeting of the Agriculture and Fisheries Council, the Agriculture Ministers of the V4, together with the French and Greeks, unanimously were in favor of getting those passages back. Back then we already asked Romania, who from the 1st of January took on the EU presidency, to have the passages inserted back in the draft, and that is what happened. There is now an opportunity to adopt this legislation with the passage on dual quality foods, and thus in its framework, we can protect, among others, Hungarian customers.

We saw the footage about the products available in Hungarian grocery stores, and it was mentioned that this is not a new issue. You and the viewers surely remember when statements were made years ago that Hungary and the Central Eastern European countries were the garbage dump of the European Union. We get the garbage that cannot be sold in Western Europe. So, obviously, this was not a new problem for the agricultural ministry. What steps had been taken before this decision were finally made with the help of the V4’s agriculture ministers. How had you been able to fight it?

There are many solutions. On the one hand, a legal framework must be provided. According to the European Union food law, this practice is legal today, if the given companies and the respective manufacturers indicate the difference among the ingredients. And, we say it is not fair in any way, and we need to create a law that allows customers to know exactly that if they buy the same product, and if it is of a different composition, it should be written on the packaging.

Excuse me for interrupting you, but let us clarify a very important point here. Now that this passage has been reinserted in the draft, what will be allowed? Will it oblige manufacturers to indicate that this food has a different composition, maybe even of a lower quality, or will it mean that the double standard will disappear and that food of the same quality will be placed on the shelves of shops in all EU Member States? There is a huge difference between the two.

Yes. Now that the passage has been reinserted in the draft, the opportunity is given that at the end of the negotiations the European Council, the European Commission will adopt the directive with this passage. And, from that point on, in the case when a manufacturer produces a product of different qualities or of a different composition in Eastern Europe than in Western Europe, national authorities will have the right to act and to draw the attention of the manufacturers to the fact that this practice should be terminated, or, if not terminated, that the practice needs to be clearly indicated on the packaging. For example, Hungarian customers need to see on the packaging that the given product has a different composition and is of a different quality than the same product in Western Europe. In this case, as usually in cases of shopping and in the food economy, customers have a decisive word, and we think that if customers have the information that a product is different and in some cases inferior, they will not buy it, and the manufacturers will be forced, for the sake of profit, to produce food of the same quality.

Regardless of this law, have the food chain safety authorities in the different member states not had this right, or have they not been obliged to report such anomalies?

We had the opportunity to do comparative tests, and we indeed did those before 2017 and at multiple times in 2017, and we made the results of these tests public in order to draw the attention of Hungarian customers to the problem. But, we could not legally say that this practice should be abolished. Therefore, we said from the beginning that the legal solution is in the hands of the European Commission.

And, this is the case right now. A few months ago, a representative European Union survey showed that Hungarian citizens have the most trust in their own national food safety authority. This is obviously a commendment to you and your team. If I’m not mistaken, the agency has existed since 2012.

Yes, the National Food Chain Safety Office is turning seven years old. If you can be praised in this regard, then sure, it is a commendment. It is also part of this survey that, according to the vast majority of Hungarian people, food safety and food control are the most important areas under state supervision. It affects everyone: every family shops, every family cooks, every family eats. Therefore, it is very important that the work done by the National Food Chain Safety Agency in the past six and a half years has not just been about punishing those dishonest businesses that are forging food or not complying with the rules. It is also about sharing all the information at our disposal with the companies and the Hungarian people, because they can then make good decisions about their purchases if they have all the information about the food that we have. So, we managed and launched many campaigns in the past years, and we plan to continue doing so in the coming years, which provides the Hungarian customers with the information they can use to make decisions about their food.

I know that every year there are so-called seasonal, spring, summer, and winter inspections carried out by the Food Chain Safety Office. I don't know if you have finished the winter inspection yet, but if so, what were the results?

It is done, yes, and in the second half of the week we will have the final results. We are now summarizing the data that came from the county government offices.

Obviously, you will not report on the results now, but we can talk about trends, as these inspections have been carried out for several years now. Can any shift be detected in either direction, be it positive or negative? Hopefully the former.

We carry out the seasonal inspections during the Easter period, during the summer season, and during the Christmas shopping season. Generally speaking, businesses that work in this area have a more law-abiding attitude. That is, they pay more attention to hygiene and they pay more attention to transparency. In other words, they pay more attention to selling the right products to their customers. We do inspections year round, but we highlight these ones so that customers pay more attention. Perhaps the biggest shopping period of the year is the weeks before Christmas, when everyone buys gifts and groceries. So, people have to pay much more attention in this period. Of course, fines are also imposed during the inspections, but the tendency in the past six years has been that businesses are more and more law-abiding.

What is the role of the volume of fines in this tendency? Are they a deterrent force? For example, compared to last year's inspections, what was the scale of the fines imposed this year, and what types of abuse did you find first and foremost?

This is a difficult question to answer because it is hard to summarize one year in this respect. For a food business to be law abiding, I think it is important that there is a food safety authority that acts tough and punishes a business that fails to comply with the law, but I also think that the fact that we treat trustworthy businesses as partners also has an important role. Businesses get all the help and all the information they need about what they need to pay attention to and about how they should work, whether it's a start-up business or a well-established business. I think it is this partnership that has been the key to success in recent years and that can be continuously the key in the years to come, because, after all, we are working for the benefit of Hungarian customers.

In what areas is there a need for development?

It would be very important to have a central laboratory base in the coming years. Laboratory testing is the basis for all regulatory procedures and all official decisions. In the case of dual food quality, we heard the director say that besides sensory tests, there were also accredited laboratory tests. So, we want to create a central laboratory in Budapest.

This has been needed for a very long time now. Forgive me for interrupting you, but maybe a few years ago, you and I might have been talking about the same topic in another TV studio of another TV channel relating to honey scandals and honey counterfeits. I think the samples had to be sent to a laboratory in Bremen and to other laboratories abroad. So, the demand was already visible back then.

We cannot say that nothing has happened because it is obligatory for us to spend 10% of the food chain supervision fee on development. So, every year, 10% of our income is spent on development, and a part of it is laboratory development. But, it is definitely important to have a properly equipped national authority in the areas where there is a lot of food counterfeiting, where there is a lot of cheating. That's why it is important that we combine our different locations in a modern building with modern technology.

When is this expected?

This will be an important task for the coming years.

Secretary of State, thank you for coming to us and telling us about all this. Dear viewers, thank you for your attention. We will be back with the show in a week. Goodbye.