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Double standards for food quality in Europe: ‘food apartheid’ in the Union of equals?

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After the Eastern Enlargement in 2004, eight Central and Eastern European countries became fully legitimate members of the European Union. Along with many different privileges of the new status, those countries became a part of the European Single Market. However, what consumers in the East actually face now is far from equality. It was revealed that the quality of the food items sold in the West is significantly higher than the products of the same brands in the East. This issue attracted a lot of attention, as this pattern was shown by very well-known international food companies. The leaders of the Eastern European countries expressed their resentment, calling the difference in quality as “food apartheid” and “the biggest scandal of the recent past.

The EU reaction

The reaction of the EU has been unsatisfying for almost a decade. The first large-scale research on the quality of food in the West and the East was done already in 2011. The Slovak Association of Consumers tested beverages, coffee, chocolate and other products with the same labels from Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Austria, and Bulgaria. The dual quality of food items under the same brands was already confirmed. However, the European Commission called those accusations groundless, saying that this is the way companies adapt to different markets.

After years of research and fighting, this issue was finally addressed by the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Junker. He called this situation unacceptable in “a Union of equals”. Clearly, that was a message of equality, called for by the Sustainable Development Goal 10 (SDG10)– reduced inequalities. The Commissioner for Justice, Consumer and Gender Equality Věra Jourová stated that it is vital to eliminate discriminatory practices and “make sure that all consumers are treated equally”. One of the targets of SDG10 is creating social protection policies, which would help to achieve greater equality. Following this call, the Commission published a set of guidelines, which aims to provide the member states all the necessary information about the implications of EU food and consumer laws. In April The Commission’s Joint Research Center published the EU harmonized testing methodology. It aims to establish a system which controls whether food laws are implemented in order to eliminate unfair commercial practices. Thus, this action will eliminate the dual standards between East and West and Europe will be one step closer to achieving SDG10.

Is it only about equality?

This issue directly corresponds to SDG3 – health and well-being. According to statistics, the Eastern European countries, along with the Baltic States, consume more sugar than Western European countries. Furthermore, the consumption level is higher than the average in the EU. The lower quality of food could be the reason for such significant numbers. The World Health Organization warns that excessive sugar consumption increases the risk of having noncommunicable diseases such as obesity. Thus, the dual standards of producers not only put people’s health at risk depending on their geographical location but also undermine the principle of equal Europe, which has an impact on SDG10.

In the context of food overproduction in Europe, it is crucial to ensure sustainable production and consumption. By doing so, the EU has a great chance to achieve SDG 12 – responsible production and consumption. If consumers of the Eastern countries were educated on sustainable lifestyle, they would react differently on the food quality injustice they were facing all these years. In addition, most of the food items of lower quality are items of non-healthy lifestyle (sodas, chocolate, canned food etc.) Maybe it is time for people to reconsider following unhealthy diets and start consuming more balanced, nutritious, plant-based diet? Through awareness-raising, which contributes to SDG12, the governments could encourage people to boycott both lower quality and unhealthy food. Thus, it could be a path, bring the people of the East to the better quality of life.

It is obvious that the situation when people have to consume low-quality food is unfair and embarrassing for the EU. However, on the bright side, we can see many opportunities how through Sustainable Development Goals we can turn this situation into an opportunity to improve the quality of life for million people, who were marginalized before. As it was indicated above, the issue of double standards raised many questions, which corresponded directly to SDG3, SDG10, and SDG12. Now it is a great chance to both solve this problem and ensure sustainable development for the whole region.

 

Angelina Guzel

Angelina Guzel currently serves as an expert in the field of EU environment policy at the Institute of Innovative Governance. Her expertise includes food policy, sustainable development and climate change. She is earning her master's degree in 'Democracy and Governance' from the University of Tartu (Estonia).

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