‘In eastern Europe, we don’t prefer to eat garbage’: readers on food inequality | Inequality

‘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.
Ana, Romania

‘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.
Oliver, Slovakia

‘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.
Anna, Hungary

‘Dangerous consequence’

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.
David, Russia

‘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.
Dorin, Romania

‘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.
Mihai, Romania

‘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.
Lara, Slovenia

‘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.
Sandra, Slovenia

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

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Brits’ bogus food poisoning claims leave hoteliers crying: ‘¡Basta!’ | World news

For two decades, Miguel has run one of the biggest hotels in Mallorca for holidaymakers on all-inclusive packages. But never has he been so angry and disappointed with his British guests. During a typical year, Miguel welcomes 9,000 British visitors, and many more from Germany and the Netherlands.

Two years ago the hotel, popular in Thomson and First Choice brochures, had just a couple of complaints for gastroenteritis (aka Spanish tummy). But last year Miguel was hit by around 200 claims alleging food poisoning. Every single one was from a British holidaymaker, with not a single complaint coming from the Germans or the Dutch. None of the Brits complained to the hotel at the time; all the claims were lodged by UK claims management companies once the holiday-makers returned home.

Miguel’s hotel has fallen victim to the epidemic of holiday-sickness claims that has begun to rival bogus whiplash claims in both their prevalence and resulting price tag. British claims firms, many of whom once wooed motorists and their passengers with offers of big payouts for whiplash injuries, have turned their attention to UK holidaymakers, encouraging them to claim compensation for food poisoning.

The specific targets are those tourists on all-inclusive holidays, as it is easier for the claims companies to successfully sue a hotel that is responsible for all the meals its residents eat.

The problem is so acute that last week tour operators warned that this summer could signal the beginning of the end of the much loved all-inclusive holidays, with the threat of a possible ban by hoteliers on British tourists.

Miguel, which is not his real name as he would only speak on condition of anonymity for himself and his hotel, says that hoteliers in Spain are “angry and disappointed” by the claims.

“We feel we have no defence because the law is so difficult. It should be the guests who have to prove that they were sick, not for us to prove they were not. They don’t even need to see a doctor to put in a claim.”

Inma Benito, president of the Federation of Mallorca Hotel Businesses, said that false claims cost hotels on the Balearic island €50m last year and that cases had soared by 700% since 2015.

It is not just in Spain where claims numbers have ballooned. Last week the Foreign Office warned of an increase in gastric illness touts in Turkey and Bulgaria and the Cypriot hotel industry said it had been hit with a £5m bill as a result of fraudulent poisoning claims.

Zacharias Ioannides, who heads the island’s association of hoteliers, likened the practice to organised crime, saying it was an exclusively British phenomenon. “It is always after the so-called event and sometimes it can be as long as three years before the bogus compensation claim lands,” he told the Observer from the organisation’s headquarters in Nicosia. “Action must be taken to safeguard the good name of the vast majority of British tourists.”

Britons make up almost half of the 3.2 million tourists who visit Cyprus annually. Marios Tzannakas, a senior official at the Cyprus Tourism Organisation, admitted that many in the industry were becoming increasingly angry and frustrated. In a tourist-dependent economy like that of Cyprus, the sector was effectively hostage to the tour operators behind the all-inclusive packages where the bogus claims were almost invariably observed. “You cannot argue with them because it is they who bring the tourists,” said Tzannakas.

But the problem in Spain is particularly acute. Agents for British claims management companies openly tout for business in Spanish resorts, telling tourists they can claim £3,000 a head with an allegation of food poisoning at an all-inclusive hotel, often following a package trip that cost only £500. Some holidaymakers are told that all the proof they need is a receipt for a packet of Imodium, the diarrhoea-relief medication, from a pharmacist in the resort.

An ambulance emblazoned with the words “Claims Clinic” was last year pictured touring around the Spanish island of Tenerife, allegedly parking outside hotels and medical centres. The side of the vehicle reads “Claim today – ask for details”.​

The authorities have started to act. Earlier this month police arrested one Briton in Alcudia and questioned another on suspicion of involvement in the fraudulent claims. The Guardia Civil said in a statement that the action was part of an investigation into false claims of food poisoning, adding that the pair were suspected of working for a claims company and touting for business in tourist areas.

“Everybody is now trying to get evidence that the claims made against their hotel are connected to the people who were detained,” says Miguel.

In Britain, the travel trade organisation Abta last week launched a campaign, Stop Sickness Scams, urging the government to close a “legal loophole” which it says is encouraging lawyers to sign up people to insist they were ill even if they were not.

Anybody typing “holiday sickness” into Google is now met with a flood of claims companies offering no-win, no-fee services.

SickHoliday.com describes itself as “the UK’s leading holiday sickness claim experts”, running adverts on 130 radio stations telling holidaymakers that “if your scenic view was the bowl of the loo”, then they should put in a claim.

Set up in 2014 by Richard Conroy, it had a turnover of £3m last year and says it made a profit of £350,000. Claimants typically receive around £1,500 while the solicitors who handle the cases earn around £2,000 per file after costs.

Conroy says he has “fought tirelessly” to bring fraudulent solicitors and claims-management companies to book. But he says suggestions that most claims are bogus are untrue.

“The Claims Management Regulator and the Ministry of Justice say there are around 35,000 claims for holiday sickness per year. They admit that 25,000 of those claims are honest, legitimate and straightforward. The majority, then, are not fraudulent. From our point of view, Abta’s crusade against claims doesn’t address the real issue – and that’s that certain resorts, due to a lack of hygiene, are making scores of people unwell every year.

“The only reason that there has been growth at all is because there’s greater awareness that holidaymakers can claim when they’ve been made poorly. The reality is gross negligence, putting people into hotels which are serving unhygienic food that is unfit for human consumption.”

But tour operators and hoteliers are hitting back at claims. Professor Jaime Campaner Muñoz, a solicitor acting on behalf of Spain’s Federation of Majorcan Hotels, said: “We will be seeking convictions against anyone who is involved in these fraudulent claims.”

In the UK, the Solicitors Regulatory Authority told the Observer that it has been passed a file by the Ministry of Justice on 21 law firms involved in holiday-sickness claims where there are suspicions that rules regarding touting for business have been broken.

The Queen’s speech last week also promised a crackdown on bogus whiplash claims on car insurance, raising the possibility that this could be extended to tackling false-sickness allegations.

Ramón Estalella, the secretary general of the Spanish hotel owners association, flatly dismissed talk of a ban on selling all-inclusive deals to British tourists, arguing that such a move would be both illegal and counterproductive for hoteliers.

But he warned ​that some individual hotels might decide to close their doors to British visitors. “There’s no ban whatsoever, but there is the risk that some individuals who can’t come to an agreement with the tour operators may say, ‘Look, if you can’t guarantee that I won’t have to pay out for false claims, then I can’t sell to the British.’”

Marios Tzannakas, in Nicosia, said that a solution to the problem lies in British law. “Legislation related to consumer protection clearly needs to be amended. It cannot be that 500 people will eat from the same buffet but only the British will get food poisoning and suffer from diarrhoea.”

Additional reporting by Sam Jones in Madrid and Helena Smith in Athens

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