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Customer choice, not regulation, drives food standards

Bill Wirtz
November 2, 2017

Ill-considered campaign slogans in Hungary and the Czech Republic are not the basis for improvements in food standards, writes Bill Wirtz.

In a renewed effort to get the issue of "dual food standards" back on the table, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary have urged the European Commission to regulate on the problem. The concern from the Visegrad Group, as they are known in Europe, is that companies might be deliberately providing supermarkets with food of lesser quality than in Western European countries. The Visegrad nations have consistently held the position that they are the "garbage can of Europe", as the Czech Republic's Agriculture Minister Marian Jurecka has put it.

The Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality, the Czech Věra Jourová also called out companies on this issue and vowed to protect consumers. Jourová said in a video for social media that there will be no "second class citizens in Europe". The Commission is pledging €1 million to assist local food standard authorities in assessing the situation on the market.

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orbán had referred to the existence of dual food standards as "the biggest scandal of the recent past". As Orbán has been falling in popularity over recent months, he is likely to believe that seeking the European Union's assistance on this issue will grant him electoral favour. The same is true for the Czech Republic where the parties of Marian Jurecka and Věra Jourová just weeks ago locked horns in their country's decisive parliamentary elections. These days, promising easy solutions to complicated debates, prior to elections, is rightfully known as populism.

Yet evidence for the actual existence of dual food quality has yet to be found. Producers have claimed that products only differ due to adaptations to local market demands, by altering levels of fat and sugars to the taste of local communities. For the same reasons that dark beer sells better in Belgium than it does in the Czech Republic, consumers choose products according to their tastes, which often appear to be homogenous. Slamming producers for varying products according to the market is strange to say the least.

Even the study that many Czech politicians point to, which was supposed to prove the existence of dual food quality, was not conclusive. Jan Pivoňka, from the Prague University of Chemistry and Technology, who carried out the research, said that: "The aim of the research was not to show that there are more or less quality products in some countries. Criteria of quality is very subjective." The researcher pointed to the fact that his study wasn't there to prove that food in Central and Eastern Europe was of a worse quality.

You wouldn't expect chilli sauce from the local corner shop to be as spicy as it is on the Mexican market, as it would be distasteful to a majority of European consumers. Companies simply adapt to local food tastes.

Commissioner Jourová puts forward new rules and regulations applying to dual food quality, yet it is hard to tell exactly what she means, nor what the Commission is supposed to do. As far as the neutral observer is concerned, the EC is making promises to an electorate that doesn't care about the European institutions, to solve a problem that doesn't exist through legislation it is not bringing forward.

Ultimately, the power over food standard lies in the hands of the consumers themselves. No one forces consumers to purchase any particular brand and they are free to pivot to other products if they aren't happy with the taste or consistency of brands offered in their country.

Food standard regulations are a serious issue that can have long-lasting effects on the European market. It would be reckless of the European Commission to implement new regulations, especially in response to election promises made in the heat of battle.

Bill Wirtz is a policy analyst for the Consumer Choice Center. He has written for Newsweek, the Washington Examiner, City AM, RealClear, The Daily Caller and CapX.
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