Food firms 'mislead Eastern Europeans with inferior products'

Food and drink behemoths have been accused of breaking EU law by fraudulently selling inferior versions of their brands to consumers in Eastern Europe.

The "manifest cheating" and fraud allegations claim that large multinational corporations, such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Birds Eye, use the same branding and packaging in both Western and Eastern Europe but the quality of Eastern European products is repeatedly inferior.

"We say for the first time clearly: this is unfair commercial practice," European commissioner for justice and consumers, Vera Jourova, told the Guardian. "In many cases, yes, I am convinced [the law has been broken] because there is manifest cheating." She said the practice – known as "dual food" – was an attempt to mislead consumers in Eastern Europe.

The allegations follow research and analysis across the EU, which found a number of cases where there were discrepancies between products in the east and west of Europe. For instance, Coca-Cola in Slovenia was found to contain more sugar and fructo-glucose syrup than the same brand sold in Austria, while Spar own-brand strawberry yoghurt had 40 per cent less strawberry than the Austrian version. There have also been numerous reports that consumers in the east often buy products from the west because they are deemed better quality.

Several countries, including Slovenia, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Hungary, have lobbied the European Commission in light of the study findings that have been published, calling the practice "food apartheid" and "the biggest scandal of the recent past".

Slovenia's prime minister, Miro Cerar, agreed the practices by food multinationals was tantamount to misleading consumers. In an interview with the Guardian, he said: "I believe sometimes you can clearly see the reasons for such unacceptable practices is simply to gain more profit. This is what the companies usually try to do. But anything essential for quality of life must be brought under control."

However, the corporations argue that any differences are a result of adapting for local tastes, preferences and demands.

In a statement for the Guardian, a spokesman for Coca-Cola said: "We occasionally slightly adapt our beverages to meet local consumer tastes and preferences, to source local ingredients or to follow local regulation. Our commitment to serving beverages that are high quality, affordable and taste great is unwavering in more than 200 countries we serve around the world, including Slovenia."

Likewise, a spokesman for Spar told the newspaper: "our policy is to fulfil consumer wishes, so each Spar country has its own Spar products; the recipes are developed in the country."

Florence Ranson, a spokeswoman for trade body FoodDrink Europe, added it was "normal practice" for companies to adapt brands to local tastes. "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," she said.

"I would like to stress that we do take these accusations of alleged dual quality very seriously. Consumers are core to our business and equally important wherever they are. It must also be stressed that whatever the recipe, our food always meets European standards and remains the safest in the world."

However, Jourova claimed the misleading practice had been going on for years with the food industry questioning and undermining testing methods and getting away with the excuses because there hadn't been an issue with food safety.

"Whenever there are tests made, [the companies] question whether they are relevant, whether they use the right methodology, whether that are comparable. For a long time the issue was ridiculed [as unimportant] – but this is about the equal treatment of consumers. We want to make sure that once we have the results, they cannot be ridiculed," she told the Guardian.

Jourova believed the law was being broken and did not necessarily need to be updated, however the European Commission has signalled that more powers could be given to national consumer bodies to investigate and prosecute companies. Meanwhile, a single testing standard is being established for national bodies to use to keep companies to account.

Jourova said she was prepared to push companies even further on the issue and "even encourage people not to buy" their brands if practices did not improve.

"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."

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