EC: “There Will Be No Double Standards in Europe’s Single Food Market”

Consumer organizations will be able to test products and identify potentially misleading practices, after the European Commission (EC) launched a new call for such proposals with a total budget of EUR1.26m. The deadline for applications is November 6.

This proposal comes after the EC published the results of a pan-European food testing campaign which showed that some products are identically or similarly branded while having a different composition.

Analyzing nearly 1,400 food products in 19 EU countries, the study carried out by the Commission’s in-house science and knowledge service (the Joint Research Center – JRC), shows that 9% of the compared products differed in composition, although the front-of-pack was identical. A further 22% of products with a different composition had a similar front-of-pack. Furthermore, the study did not show a consistent geographical pattern. Based on the new methodology developed, national competent authorities will now be able to perform the case by case analysis required to determine misleading practices prohibited under EU consumer law, the European authorities say.

Since the president of the Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, has been addressing the issue of dual quality of products in his State of the Union Address in 2017, the European Commission has taken forward different initiatives by:

  • clarifying when dual quality of products is a misleading practice through legislation under the recently agreed New Deal for Consumers;
  • establishing a common methodology for the testing of food products;
  • issuing a set of guidelines to help national authorities apply EU consumer and food legislation;
  • dedicating over EUR4.5m to solve this issue;
  • testing products across the EU with the same methodology to get a better understanding of dual quality of goods.

According to EU legislation, marketing a good as identical to one marketed in another Member State could unfairly and illegally mislead consumers if that good has a significantly different composition or characteristics which cannot be justified by legitimate and objective reasons. The Member States that participated in the survey were: Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and The Netherlands.

Tibor Navracsics, commissioner for education, culture, youth and sport, responsible for the Joint Research Center, said: “Some Europeans feel branded food products they buy are different, perhaps worse, compared to those available elsewhere. The Commission called on our scientists to help objectively assess the extent of such differences on the single market. The results are mixed: while I am happy that they found no evidence of an East-West divide in the composition of branded food products, I am worried that they uncovered up to one third of tested products having different compositions while being identically or similarly branded.”

Věra Jourová, commissioner for justice, consumers and gender equality, said: “There will be no double standards in Europe’s single market. With the new laws penalizing the dual quality and strengthening the hands of the consumer authorities, we have the tools at hand to put an end to this practice. European consumers will be able to do their shopping in full trust that they buy what they see.

Food Producer Organizations React

European Brands Association (AIM) and FoodDrinkEurope, representing European branded food manufacturers, welcome the publication of the analysis, saying that it confirms that there is no evidence of an “East-West” divide in the quality of food.

The two organizations maintain their strong support for JRC’s initiative to further investigate and clarify the issue related to alleged “dual quality” of food. They consider that the process has provided a sound basis in the absence of clear, comparable and robust data and evidence, and helps define parameters for the industry in the future. “While some level of subjectivity and a certain margin of error will always exist considering the very nature of this exercise, we believe that it is critically important to follow an EU-endorsed methodology,” they say.

The results, which are part of the first phase of the JRC study, come as no surprise to Europe’s food and drink industry, which has always argued that there is no common division of markets for food into ‘East’ vs. ‘West’ in the EU. “The JRC report indicates that differences can exist in nutrient composition and/or ingredients, but that these are not structurally linked to specific geographies and, for the most part, can be logically explained. It is commonplace for food and drink companies to adapt recipes for a number of reasons, including compliance with national legislation and standards, availability of raw materials and supporting local supply chains, meeting consumer preferences and local consumer expectations and investing in product reformulation efforts to improve the nutritional profile of products. The JRC report clarifies that a difference in composition does not imply a difference in quality per se,” a press release issued by AIM and FoodDrinkEurope says.

Mella Frewen, director general of FoodDrinkEurope, commented: “Europe’s food and drink companies, small and large alike, take pride in being able to serve the richness of diversity in consumer preferences, whilst standing behind high quality, sustainability and brand consistency across Europe. We hope that the publication of the JRC report will provide reassurance to consumers, authorities and other stakeholders.”

Michelle Gibbons, director general of AIM: “As can be seen by the details in the report, brands manufacturers in Europe have partnered with the European Commission and the JRC to ensure all facts have been made available to clarify this key issue. We look forward to continuing this constructive dialogue in the future, as we all seek to deliver the absolute best for consumers and communities around Europe.”

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