Bulgaria is the latest eastern European state that has accused multinationals of selling lower quality food in its market than in the west, and has launched a pan-European taste-test to prove its case. The country’s minister for agriculture, food, and forestry, Rumen Porozhanov, said experts had been sent to buy well-known food and drink products in western supermarkets.
He also said that following week he was going to have bought identical products that are sold on the Bulgarian market by the big chains and then the analysis will start. It is claimed that major food companies are using poorer-quality ingredients in products sold in central and Eastern Europe than in Germany, Austria, and the UK, among others. The newly elected Bulgarian prime minister, Boyko Borissov, appeared to attribute the alleged differences in quality to the legacy of the cold war, in comments following a special sitting of the Bulgarian cabinet. He called it unacceptable and insulting, and he told reporters he was going to announce a review. He also suggested that it could be a remnant of apartheid – for some food should be of higher quality and for others, in Eastern Europe, of lower quality. Included in the analysis being undertaken by the Bulgarian food safety agency are popular chocolate, dairy, and meat products, nonalcoholic beverages, juices and baby foods. Bulgaria’s ombudsman Maya Manolova has also reportedly approached Věra Jourová – the European commissioner for justice, consumers, and gender equality – about the issue.
It is unclear what evidence Bulgaria has for its claims. When asked for an explanation, a spokesman for the Bulgarian food safety agency said that they were still collecting samples to conduct the research and could not declare results right now. He said the results of the research would not be available until June 30. The complaint, however, follows similar allegations from the governments of the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia. All four countries are members of the European Union. Hungary’s food safety authority claimed in February to have discovered that Nutella sold in Hungarian supermarkets is not as mellow as the brand in Austria, for example. The spread’s Italian maker, Ferrero, has strongly denied there is any difference in quality. A study published by the Slovakian government in April alleged that the main differences in various products were related to (1) the proportion of fats; (2) the different content of meat; (3) the addition of artificial sweeteners instead of natural sweeteners; and (4) the substitution of coloring and artificial fruit aroma for real fruit.
When ordering a review in his country, Czech agriculture minister Marian Jurečka claimed that where some products were are concerned, they have turned into Europe’s garbage can. The suspicion that products sold in Eastern Europe are inferior to those in the supermarkets in the west has long had a firm hold in the public imagination in the Visegrád group countries (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia). And the suspicion has been one of the weapons used by the Hungarian government led by Viktor Orbán to attack Brussels. The latest flurry of accusations builds on complaints first made in 2011 by the Slovak association of consumers. The European commission has largely dismissed the complaints, noting that multinational companies are free to adapt their products to different markets as long as EU laws on labeling and safety are respected.