BRATISLAVA (Reuters) - The prime ministers of four central European countries urged the European Commission on Friday to fight double standards in the quality of food, an issue they see as an example of westerners treating easterners as second-class Europeans.
The four countries - the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia - have all complained that multinational companies sell poorer-quality food products in their markets, using the same brand and product names as higher-quality products sold in the west.
Those complaints have found some sympathy at the European Union’s executive, which has promised to look into how existing rules are upheld.
That cooperation comes as part of a larger effort to ease EU tensions over migration, free movement of workers and concern that Hungary and Poland are undermining democracy and the rule of law .
The prime ministers and EU commissioners Vera Jourova and Vytenis Andriukaitis pledged at a summit in Bratislava on Friday to ensure consumers throughout the EU are not misled about what they are buying - but without pledging that products would have the same ingredients across the continent.
“When we talk about dual quality of products, people think they did not lose just money, they feel they lost justice,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said in a speech at the summit.
Tests in several eastern EU states proved that some companies use cheaper ingredients, or less of them, in food products and detergents sold in the east compared with the same products sold in adjacent Austria and Germany.
Central and eastern political leaders say it is unethical and warn it could worsen their already rising euro-skepticism.
Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico, who said earlier Slovakia wants to be a part of EU’s deeply integrated core, said it was unacceptable to divide Europeans into first- and second-class citizens.
The summit was attended by lower-ranking officials from western Europe, in contrast to prime ministers and ministers from farther east.
The western representatives backed corporate arguments that mandatory unification of products across EU would violate the principles of free market and competition, according to a source who was the meeting.
The EU executive said last month existing EU law bars “marketing of identically branded products in a way that has a potential to mislead consumers”.
It also promised to provide financing to improve research on food comparison and enforcement of the rules.
Some companies, including Bahlsen and PepsiPEP.N, have reacted to criticism by changing their products so they have same ingredients across Europe.
Germany’s Dr Oetker has put a label that says “special edition” on its pizza sold in east Europe that has five pieces of mozzarella compared to seven pieces on the Austrian version. But the central Europeans are asking for more.
“The current EU law does not allow for proper prosecution of misleading practice,” said Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka. “We need to amend it.”
It is a rare occasion where central Europeans are asking for more power for Brussels. On most other issues, including migration, the four so-called Visegrad countries have called for the opposite - more power for individual member states.
Reporting By Tatiana Jancarikova, editing by Larry King