Dual Food Quality: Commission releases study assessing differences in the composition of EU food products

food stand

(Dan Gold, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you in association with the European Commission.


Yesterday, the Commission published the results of a pan-European testing campaign of food products showing that some products are identically or similarly branded while having a different composition.

Since his State of the Union Address in 2017, President Jean-Claude Juncker has been committed to addressing the issue of dual quality of products. The European Commission has taken forward different initiatives and yesterday published a study following tests of food products across the EU using the same methodology, in order to better understand the dual quality of food products in the EU. Analysing nearly 1,400 food products in 19 EU countries, the study, carried out by the Commission’s in-house science and knowledge service, the Joint Research Centre, shows that 9% of the compared products differed in composition, although the front-of-pack was identical. A further 22% of products with a different composition had a similar front-of-pack. The study did not show a consistent geographical pattern. Based on the new methodology developed, national competent authorities will now be able to perform the case by case analysis required to determine misleading practices prohibited under EU consumer law.

Tibor Navracsics, Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, responsible for the Joint Research Centre, said: “Some Europeans feel branded food products they buy are different, perhaps worse, compared to those available elsewhere. The Commission called on our scientists to help objectively assess the extent of such differences on the single market. The results are mixed: while I am happy that they found no evidence of an East-West divide in the composition of branded food products, I am worried that they uncovered up to one third of tested products having different compositions while being identically or similarly branded.”

Věra Jourová, Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality, said: “There will be no double standards in Europe’s single market. With the new laws penalizing the dual quality and strengthening the hands of the consumer authorities, we have the tools at hand to put an end to this practice. European consumers will be able to do their shopping in full trust that they buy what they see.

Main findings

The study assessed 1,380 samples of 128 different food products from 19 Member States. The sample is, however, not representative of the vast diversity of food products on the EU market. The study found that:

  • In the majority of cases, the composition matched the way products were presented: 23% of products had an identical front-of-pack and an identical composition, and 27% of products signaled their different composition in different EU countries with a different front-of-pack.
  • 9% of products presented as being the same across the EU had a different composition: they had an identical front-of-pack, but a different composition.
  • A further 22% of products presented in a similar way had a different composition: they had a similar front-of-pack, yet a different composition.
  • There is no consistent geographical pattern in the use of the same or similar packaging for products with different compositions. Moreover, the difference in the composition found in the products tested do not necessarily constitute a difference in product quality.

Commission action on this issue

Since the President of the Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, has been addressing the issue of dual quality of products in his State of the Union Address in 2017, the European Commission has taken forward different initiatives by:

  • clarifying when dual quality of products is a misleading practice through legislation under the recently agreed New Deal for Consumers;
  • establishing a common methodology for the testing of food products;
  • issuing a set of guidelines to help national authorities apply EU consumer and food legislation;
  • dedicating over €4.5 million to solve this issue;
  • testing products across the EU with the same methodology to get a better understanding of dual quality of goods.

Next steps

The European Commission launched yesterday a new call for proposals with a total budget of €1.26 million to strengthen consumer organisations’ capacities to test products and identify potentially misleading practices. The deadline for applications is 6 November 2019.

Background

According to EU legislation, marketing a  good as identical to one marketed in another Member States while that good has a significantly different composition or characteristics which cannot be justified by legitimate and objective reasons could unfairly and illegally mislead consumers.

The study, conducted by the Commission’s Joint Research Centre, describes the situation found on the markets of the nineteen participating Member States during the period the survey was carried out (November-December 2018). The testing campaign was part of the European Commission’s response to concerns about dual quality foods. The products were selected based on Member States’ suggestions, following complaints to consumer protection authorities or associations.

Testing was based on a harmonised methodology developed in cooperation with Member States by the Joint Research Centre. This methodology allows for comparable sampling, testing and data interpretation across the EU. All EU Member States were invited to collect information regarding the composition of the selected food products offered on their markets. Nineteen EU Member States submitted information on 113 branded and 15 private label products. As a first step, this analysis is based on information from the product labels and the front-of-pack appearance of the products.

The report published yesterday will provide a better basis for the discussion of dual quality in the EU. However, further steps and research are needed to make the assessment more representative, and to better understand the link between composition and quality.

The Member States that participated in the survey were: Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and The Netherlands.

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