By MEP Olga Sehnalová
Consumers in all EU countries should have access to the same quality products no matter where they shop. Some time ago, I learned food and other consumer goods were being sold in identical packaging across the EU but the quality in some countries was lower. I called on the European Commission to take action, and it recently introduced reforms that could potentially end these double standards. While I am hopeful the changes will help national authorities trying to tackle the so-called “dual quality” issue, the vagueness of some parts of the legislation could hinder their efforts. A new approach for comparing the quality of packaged food across the EU has been released. However, we also need a better understanding of how other products are affected. Most of all, it is important that product labels are clear and consumers are kept informed as we work to find a solution.
Results of numerous surveys conducted in several EU member states since 2011 until now have proven that there are differences between products which are advertised and distributed in the EU Single Market under the same brand and with the same seemingly identical packaging. Based on the tangible examples of a different meat used in salami or less fat in yoghurts, consumers became concerned about possible discrimination between different member states when it came to access to products of the equivalent level of quality, in particular food, but also non-food products, including detergents, cosmetics, toiletries and products intended for babies.
When I asked the European Commission if it was aware of such potential differences, and whether this might be a problem related to the functioning of the Single Market and consumers protection, the dismissive reply about consumers’ different tastes or price preferences did not suggest that a few years later this issue of dual quality would be so high on the European agenda.
A solution to citizens’ concern seems to be on its way, as the Commission announced it would address dual quality by amending the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive. The Commission’s intention is to explicitly enable national authorities to assess and address misleading commercial practices involving the marketing of products as being identical in several EU countries, if their composition or characteristics are significantly different.
Indeed, the experiences of competent authorities (those responsible for implementing the law) and lack of any practical application of current EU food and consumer laws by the authorities suggest that they have been unable individually to effectively tackle any specific cases of dual quality at the national level, due in part to the absence of an explicit legal provision at the EU level.
The proposal as such could therefore be considered as a step in the right direction. I have, however, several doubts as it contains several unclear provisions that need to be clarified or provisions that could jeopardize competent authorities’ ability to undertake case-by-case assessment and apply this law.
Notably the concept of “defined consumer preferences” in assessing whether a differentiation in the product composition is justified, or not, might lead to conflicting interpretations between competent authorities. This applies also for a reference to a “significant difference” in composition.
I firmly believe that consumer preferences should not be used as an excuse for lowering quality or offering different quality grades on different markets. Product differentiation and innovation should not be restricted, as such, but consumers cannot be misled. Some manufacturers and owners of private labels have already announced changes to recipes or the use of a single production standard at EU level, so there is a clear shift in behaviour of a few market players.
At any rate, consumers must be transparently and clearly informed and aware of the change, where it exists, for each individual product and not only in general terms, that this "established practice" exists. In case a company intends to place products that differ in certain characteristics on the market of different member states, such a product cannot be labelled and branded in a seemingly identical manner. Providing accurate and easy-to-understand information to consumers is another “must” for tackling the issue of dual quality of products.
The Commission has also recently released a new common methodology for comparing the quality of food products across the EU. I also believe that a collection of further reliable and comparable evidence is needed, notably in the non-food sector. A common pan-European testing approach is something that the European Parliament asked for already in 2013. It should be conducted in the most transparent way so European citizens are properly informed about the situation in the market.
The era of pretending that there are no double standards is hopefully over. Ensuring that European consumers feel they are being treated fairly and on equal basis everywhere, however, is still ahead of us.
Olga Sehnalová is an MEP, member of the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament for the Czech Republic’s Social Democratic Party.
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