Over the last few months, political authorities in several Central and Eastern European EU countries have alleged that food and drink products sold to consumers in their markets are often of inferior quality compared to similar products sold in Western European ones.
The food and drink industry is obviously taking these allegations very seriously. All consumers are equal and food manufacturers firmly believe that everyone deserves the highest quality and safety that European standards guarantee.
To support their allegations, the said authorities refer to tests which have been carried out in some countries comparing products between various markets. Differences can exist, of course, but when they do, there is generally a very clear explanation:
First of all, food and drink manufacturers adapt their products to local consumer tastes. We all know that tastes and habits differ between Sweden and Portugal, as much as between France and Greece or between Ireland and Hungary. Companies never adapt recipes randomly: they invest enormous amounts of time and resources into consumer research, work with local consumer groups, reflect upon nutritional habits and culture, etc. It is of course in their interest to offer products which consumers like, or the latter will turn to other brands. Production sites based in one country usually cater for several countries at the same time and provide the same recipe to regions with similar tastes. This is not an East-West divide. The same product can be sold in Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic, for instance, while a slightly different recipe is sold in Denmark, the Baltic States and the UK.
Many food and drink manufacturers are also committed to changing the recipes of their products in order to reduce specific ingredients like sugar – as part of their commitments to encourage balanced diets among consumers. In that case, they replace these ingredients with substitutes, like sweeteners. This will also change the recipe of certain products.
Another reason for possible differences is due to the local sourcing of the raw materials. Producers try to prioritise as much as possible local productions, for obvious reasons of logistics and environmental footprint, but also in order to support the local economy. Prices are adapted to local market conditions and sourcing locally helps keep products affordable. Local ingredients may differ slightly in taste or in composition from ingredients originating in other countries.
Finally, recipe changes may be linked to national regulation, which sometimes differs from EU rules, for instance because of the way these were implemented nationally, or because the Member State authorities have added extra rules.
The tests which have so far been carried out in the countries which have complained have disregarded these explanations. They have also used different testing methodologies, sometimes not comparing like to like, thus rendering the results questionable. In so doing, they have caused reputational damage to the food and drink industry.
The industry has however been cooperating with the European Commission since this issue was raised at European level and has committed to an open dialogue with national authorities, consumer representatives and other interested parties, under the auspices of the Commission. The European Commission has in parallel decided to allocate funds to the European Joint Research Centre to create a harmonised testing methodology, which will help clearly differentiate facts from allegations and hopefully lead to a better mutual understanding.
The debates related to alleged dual quality have now become more political than technical and the sooner the dialogue starts, bringing more understanding, the better it is for all. It is in everyone’s interest to address the real concerns of consumers, politicians and companies, so trust is maintained in the EU’s largest manufacturing sector and provider of safe, tasty and affordable food and drink products, which millions of consumers enjoy every day.
Florence Ranson, Communications Director FoodDrinkEurope