‘Cats and dogs refuse to eat it’
My husband and I both studied and lived abroad for many years, and we can honestly say what we find in supermarkets here [in Romania] is not food. Lots of people become vegetarians only because they fear the quality of the meat and meat products available. Many say certain products contain no meat at all. The taste is horrible, the texture questionable, and the cats and dogs refuse to eat it.
Frozen pizzas are smaller here and don’t taste as good, orange juice has less real oranges in it, and nobody touches the fish fingers. It’s scary when even the fruit available is obviously full of hormones. We had a grapefruit for a while and it became an experiment to see if it would ever go bad. After four months we gave up and threw it away – but it still looked fresh.
It’s like they can deliver whatever product and call it food, because we don’t know any better. Check out life expectancy in Romania and why it’s so low. We feel like less than human when we can’t choose to eat healthy food. As to the claim that brands adjust their products to the local taste, I would like to comment that here in eastern Europe, we don’t prefer to eat garbage.
‘Spitting in the face of consumers’
Visit the border towns in Burgenland at the weekend and you’ll see shops in this once dead-end part of Austria packed with shoppers from Slovakia seeking good-quality products, even for a higher price. The argument about “different local tastes” is spitting in the face of all consumers here. If companies are so sure of this argument, I challenge them to offer both types of products and see how sales go. But the monopoly is something they fear to lose, so unless forced, they won’t.
‘There is no issue with these products’
As a market researcher, I used to work at different companies in Hungary. There is simply no issue with these products. These companies want to serve the local communities: they produce different varieties, test these on customers, and find out which is the best one they can sell with profit. If it tastes a bit different so be it, as long as this difference doesn’t cause any harm and the products are still considered edible. I think it’s simply [Hungarian prime minister] Viktor Orbán and his spin-doctor’s attempt to blame the EU and the west for something that is the result of globalisation and cultural differences.
Imre, Hungarian living in UK
‘The yoghurt contained flour’
There have been rumours about food and product inequality for many years here [in Hungary]. In Geneva I bought a yoghurt, and the consistency was entirely different to the same product I bought in Budapest. Later I learned from a friend in Hungary who had flour intolerance that he was not allowed to eat this brand of yoghurt in Hungary because it contained flour! Another example: the liquid detergent I bought in Budapest is less thick and more transparent, as if it were a diluted version of the same brand we bought in Geneva and Zurich.
These practices have a more dangerous consequence. It has turned many people in this part of the world against “Europe”, and allowed the authoritarian president to whip up “anti-western” sentiments. These companies are to a large degree responsible for the poor relations that now exist between the different countries in Europe.
‘Dumpster of the EU food market’
I visit western Europe once or twice a year. The same products, marketed under the same name, are of inferior quality in Romania than in Germany or France or the UK. Not just prepackaged foods but fruit, vegetables and meat as well, when comparing brands available from the same chain of supermarkets. When I hear the excuse of catering to “local tastes”, I start to hyperventilate. Nobody has an appetite for inferior food – and the solution is, most of the time, “add more sugar”. If you add to this the fact that food is generally more expensive in Romania, you get a clearer picture of why Romanians might think they are considered the dumpster of the EU food market.
‘Only their hypocrisy upsets me’
How convenient “local tastes” are: more sugar, lower percentage of fruit, lower percentage of meat; never vice-versa. But it makes sense. People want to buy western brands because it makes them feel good – but if western companies delivered their standard products, they would be too expensive for local consumers. If these companies wanted to be honest and create a sub-standard local brand, then advertising would be far more expensive than just adapting the existing brand. The natural solution was controlled damage to their standard brands. It’s only their hypocrisy, pretending that this is the “local taste”, that upsets me.
‘Inferior comfort food’
I have one particular product that triggered my (amateur) research on the topic: frozen pizza. It was my favourite comfort food. Suddenly it looked and tasted different, definitely inferior. I also noticed that, for the first time, the cooking instructions were not in German, Dutch, English or Spanish. Instead, they were in the languages of central and eastern Europe. Years later I lived in the Netherlands, and noticed the same pizzas looked like the old versions I loved. Comparing the boxes, I noticed the “western” pizza contained seven slices of cheese, compared to five in the “eastern” version. The eastern pizza weighed less, but contained more saturated fats and sugar; hence also more calories.
‘Laundry will never smell as good’
In Poland you can find shops reselling goods bought in Germany, especially cleaning products and chocolate. My uncle in Germany still brings washing products for my mum. Your laundry will never smell as good and for as long if you use Polish versions of washing liquid brands. My cousins were always jealous of my nice-smelling clothes (now they get their washing products from Germany too).
Roza, Pole living in France
‘Salmon is a disgrace’
One of the biggest culprits is fish – salmon is a disgrace in the Czech Republic. It is usually cooled to a point before it freezes, then thawed before being passed off as fresh salmon. The cooling data and thawing is written on the side of boxes – but the retailers take advantage of the fact consumers cannot generally read English-language storage instructions. Savvy buyers know to buy goods where labels on products have Czech language labels stuck over the original text. This means the product that is sold in western markets is identical to the Czech market product.
Nigel, Czech Republic
‘Cling film doesn’t cling’
We’ve known for years the goods here are of lower quality, but are sold at greater cost. Well-known brands of wine that are “bottled” in the Czech Republic taste rancid compared to their UK counterparts. Toilet paper is rough, flimsy and will actually give you paper cuts. Cling film doesn’t cling, stock cubes add no flavour.
Maie, Czech Republic
‘Capitalism hasn’t delivered’
We are used to buying basic groceries in the west and transporting them to our home countries. The tediousness of it contributed to the end of communism. However, it seems capitalism hasn’t delivered “what we paid for” either.
Food industry statement
We take the 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. The companies currently in the spotlight have rigorous quality management systems in place to ensure consistent quality across their brands, all over the world. 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. For example, differences in composition can also found between the UK and France, or between Italy and Sweden.
Florence Ranson from FoodDrinkEurope, the industry’s lobby group in Brussels