At the beginning of the year, news bulletins sparked up this particular piece of news, and they made official what everybody in Central and East European countries had known for decades: that the food major brands sold locally was of lower quality than the products in Western stores. Countries such as Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Serbia and others from the region have been constantly supplied with lower quality products of the same international brands. So, while you can get a Nestea or a Coca-Cola beverage in any European country, you will know exactly what market it was directed towards, only by drinking it.
The Issue of the Double Food Standard Between Eastern and Western Europe
Are there really differences between products?
You tend to see the same packaging, the same brand, the same type of communication, the same commercials translated in different languages and the same marketing efforts. Then how can the products, the common item everybody is convinced to purchase, be different from one country to another. This is even more difficult to grasp for a person living in Western Europe, than for a person living in Central or Eastern Europe. And this is simply because it has been going on for so long that the children who grew up to hear their parents say that things are better in the West, now say the same thing to their children.
The differences consist in recipe and ingredients. So, while the recipe is in the same zip code and easily identifiable, once you taste one product, then the other, you clearly note the difference. Tests have been done on some products and have come up with insignificant differences in some cases, and with no differences at all in others. Yet people claim that they can feel it.
Cross-border shopping of day-to-day products
Border shopping malls and commercial centers experience weekly affluence of clients from neighboring countries. For instance, an Austrian shopping mall at the border with Slovakia, constantly has up to a third of its parking spaces occupied by Slovakian cars.People find it is worth to travel up to 140 km just to get better quality goods, at the same prices (put a pin in that). This practice is as old as the times when the Iron Curtain first fell. Back then, it was caused by the fact that these brands were not on sale in former communist countries. Now, they are on all the shelves, but in a low-quality version.
And food products are not the only ones people can see the difference in. Cleaning products and cosmetics are much better in the West. Milder yet more efficient substances designed to clean and protect, are exchanged for cheaper, low-performing substance in the products meant for Eastern markets.
What do brand representatives have to say about this?
Brand representatives normally claim that they have to make different products because they need to adapt them to taste specifics for each area. Some nations have a taste for the sweeter things, while others prefer it bland. Quantities of aromatic substances need to be decided upon according to the requirements of each country. Hence, the differences in products.
Another argument in favor of having products of varying quality consists of the differences in production units all over Europe. In some cases, the brands claim not to have control over the recipes and the types of ingredients used.
Calling their bluff means…
People who have studied the issue know that these arguments are not valid. For starters, differences in flavors mean promoting one variety of the same product more. Therefore, if you have a product in the following flavors: chocolate, vanilla, apple, strawberry, and peach, for example, then you might tend to promote some flavors more intensely on some markets, rather than on others. We could say that Germans are fonder of the chocolate and vanilla taste, while Bulgarians prefer the apple and peach ones. Yes, this makes sense.
However, what brands are doing is using a good argument the wrong way. The difference in products does not lie with flavors, but with switching some ingredients with others. Therefore, while some juices may only be sweetened with sugar in Western Europe, their Eastern counterparts are sweetened with fructose, glucose, aspartame and other artificial sweeteners. And there is no claim to be made that Eastern Europeans prefer artificial sweeteners to sugar. Another good example is the spritz biscuits (biscuits with butter), which have the recipe dictated amount of butter only in the products meant for the Western market. The products meant for the Eastern market have butter replacements and palm oil.
Understanding the difference and why this is wrong
Former communist countries have experienced famine and food shortages. These are also places where the average income per household is half the one in Western countries. This would make people more oriented toward quantity, rather than quality. And this was a correct reasoning up until recently, when the switch between generations was officially made, when the young people, who grew without the restrictions of the communist party are now starting to make more significant purchases and have a say in what is on the market.
Also, having a lower income would explain why companies are trying to make their products cheaper, but this does not by any means reflect in the final product, which is more expensive than on Western markets. Conclusion? Brands are using the “Eastern market specifics” excuse to get away with a cheaper production but with higher prices, since their products are considered automatically better than anything else on the local market.
What does the European Union do about it?
Nothing, for now. The EU can force producers to put all the ingredients on the label and not to lie to the buyers. However, without a sample of the Western counterpart in one hand, clients in the East cannot tell the difference. Therefore, they do not know that there is the option of a healthier alternative and that people in the West pay better prices for it. On the other hand, the EU cannot compel manufacturers to keep to the same recipe everywhere. This would entail serious negotiations between every producer and every state. And it would take a big bite out of the profit of big brands.
This type of practice reveals the existence of a two-class Europe, a concept almost as old as time, and a condition that we have not managed to shake off, not even now, in 2017. And it is not even about what some can and what others cannot afford. It is the never-ending issue of not even having the same opportunities. So, while some countries would still prefer low-quality products as long as they come in large quantities and are affordable, it would still be nice to know that when people “spring” for something a bit more expensive, they get some quality for their effort. It’s about being able to do it, instead of constantly being the second-hand shelf, yet with guaranteed profits.