* Brand ingredients differ between eastern, western EU
* Shoppers cross ex-communist border for "higher-quality"
* Variations cater to regional preferences, foodmakers say
* Lower-quality foods may also reflect lower income levels
* Eastern states want EU to ban "unethical" differences
* To raise matter at Brussels food council meeting March 6
By Tatiana Jancarikova
HAINBURG, Austria, March 1 When communism
collapsed across central and eastern Europe in 1989, many Czechs
and Slovaks flocked across newly unsealed borders to browse in
shops in Austria full of high-quality goods they knew only from
Foreign brands quickly filled once-barren state stores in
the east, but many still make the trip west - though no longer
to window-shop but to buy what they believe are superior
versions of the same brands they can find at home.
Ad hoc comparisons by media and lab tests show that some
multinational brands use different, often cheaper ingredients in
food items sold on the east side of Europe's old Iron Curtain
divide than in products sold in adjacent Austria and Germany.
The practice is legal in the European Union, to which most
eastern states now belong, as long as ingredients are declared.
But central and eastern political leaders say it is unethical
for products sold under the same brand to be inferior in quality
in "new" EU member states compared with "old" member states.
The issue is now exercising the Visegrad Group of central
and east European governments - Slovakia, the Czech Republic,
Hungary and Poland - and they will meet in Warsaw on Thursday to
prod Brussels for action against EU "double standards" in food.
They plan to raise the topic at a March 6 meeting of the
EU's Agriculture Council in Brussels and call for an EU-wide
solution that could involve changes to the bloc's consumer
protection and food safety laws.
On one afternoon this week at a small shopping mall in
Hainburg, a tidy Austrian town just up the Danube River from the
Slovak capital Bratislava, about half of the parked cars bore
Slovak license plates.
"I come here once a week to buy Austrian yoghurts, butter,
salami and washing powder," said Livia, a 65-year-old shop
assistant from the southwestern Slovak town of Dunajska Luzna.
"I don't hunt for the cheapest products, but the mid-range
priced products in Austria have better quality than in Slovakia.
You would expect that the products were the same, given that
both countries are members of the EU."
Companies have explained differing composition of products
sold in less competitive, poorer eastern markets by saying they
are catering to local tastes and preferences.
"This is misleading to customers because (shoppers) expect
the same product when they see the same packaging," food and
agriculture analyst Petr Havel told Reuters.
He said producers have sometimes reduced the most expensive
ingredients to keep food prices affordable - and protect their
profit margins - in central and eastern EU countries where
incomes remain lower than in the west and consumers conditioned
by communist-era shortages long preferred quantity over quality.
"But this (attitude) has been slowly changing and people
have been seeking higher quality products recently."
A Czech member of the European Parliament, Olga Sehnalova,
brought the issue to public attention in 2015 when she presented
a Prague University of Chemistry and Technology study of
east-west differences in same-brand foods.
Visegrad governments seized on the findings, keen to show
voters they are defending their interests against EU elites in
Brussels often seen as distant from regional concerns.
FISH FINGERS TO BISCUITS
Last month, Slovakia's Agriculture Ministry compared 22
same-brand products bought in Bratislava and in two Austrian
towns across the nearby border and found half of them differed
in taste, looks and composition. For instance, a German orange
drink contained no actual juice, unlike the version sold in
Hungary's food safety authority examined 24 products sold in
both Hungary and Austria. It found, among other things, that the
domestic version of Manner wafers was less crunchy and the local
Nutella not as creamy as the Austrian counterpart.
Reuters reporters found this week that Iglo Fish Fingers
sold in Slovakia and Hungary had 58 percent fish content while
the original in Austria, sold in identical packaging for
virtually the same price, had 65 percent.
In Poland, Leibniz biscuits contain five percent of butter
and some palm oil, while the same sold in their German home
market contain 12 percent of butter and no palm oil, a cheaper
alternative to butter.
Britain-based Nomad Foods Europe, the maker of Iglo Fish
Fingers, said it adapts that product to reflect local taste and
preferences and these were different from Austria.
"The fish fingers we sell in Hungary and Slovakia ... are
exactly the same ones as we sell in the UK," Nomad Foods
Corporate Affairs Director Sinead Noble told Reuters.
Manner, a family-owned Austrian company; Ferrero,
the Italian producer of Nutella; and Bahlsen, the German maker
of Leibniz biscuits, did not immediately reply to emailed
questions from Reuters.
Foodmakers say differences in product ingredients are all
permitted by EU consumer and food safety statutes.
"Consumers must be accurately informed and must not be
misled as to the composition of the foods they buy," a European
Commission spokeswoman said.
But that position does not wash for the EU Commissioner for
Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality, Vera Jourova, a Czech.
"Dual quality of food products of the same brand in the
member states is misleading, intolerable and unfair to
consumers. I will do my best to stop it," she told Reuters.
"EUROPE'S GARBAGE CAN"
A poll last year commissioned by Prague's Agriculture and
Food Inspection Authority found 88 percent of Czechs were
bothered by varying compositions of food products for Czech and
other markets, and 77 percent rejected the producers' argument
that such differences were driven only by local preferences.
Czech Agriculture Minister Marian Jurecka said last week
that people in central and eastern countries were tired of being
"Europe's garbage can". The top aide to nationalist Hungarian
Prime Minister Viktor Orban called dual food standards "the
biggest scandal of the recent past".
Part of the reason for varying product composition has been
continued lower purchasing power in formerly communist
countries, where average household net disposable incomes are
about half of those in affluent Austria.
Food prices on the whole are lower in each of the four
Visegrad Group countries than in Austria and Germany, according
to 2015 data compiled by the EU statistics office Eurostat.
Poland is by far the cheapest at 63 percent of the EU
average, versus 120 percent of the average in Austria.
Still, many shoppers say they get higher quality for the
same money when they pop into Austria or Germany, whatever the
results of comparative tests done by government researchers.
A number of Czech websites offer shipments of what they
describe as high-quality, cheaper products direct from German
stores. Also in high demand across the region are German
cosmetics and detergents.
For some Slovaks, shopping in Austria has become normal. "I
would not eat a Slovak cheese anymore, I've got used to Austrian
products," said Michael, an 11-year-old shopping with his
37-year-old mother Janette in Hainburg.
She thinks it is worth making the 140-km (87-mile) journey
to Hainburg from their home in Trencin twice a month. "You can
see the difference in the famous Milka chocolate. The Austrian
version simply tastes better," she said.
Slovak government tests, however, found "no significant
differences" between Milka chocolates sold in Slovakia and in
(Additional reporting by Gergely Szakac in Budapest, Marcin
Goettig in Warsaw, Foo Yun Chee in Brussels and Jan Lopatka in
Prague; editing by Mark Heinrich)