Products sold with the same brand name and packaging must have the same composition in every EU country, according to a resolution adopted by MEPs on 13 September.
The own-initiative report by Czech S&D member Olga Sehnalová, proposes measures against the unfair commercial practice of selling lower quality products in some EU countries and also states it's essential to provde consumers with accurate and easy to understand information.
"If a product has been adjusted for whatever reason, the consumer has a right to be informed in a clear and transparent way," said Sehnalová.
The report invites consumer organisations to inform consumers and play an active role in the public debate, while calling on the industry to improve transparency.
The European Commission will be allocating €2 million to a joint research centre to develop a methodology to help uncover this practice as well as a common testing approach for the whole of the EU. This decision has been welcomed by MEPs.
Members also call on the Commission to include the practice of selling the same product to a lower standard of quality in some EU countries in the list of banned practices covered by the EU's unfair commercial practices directive and to draw legislation to help consumers to seek redress from producers.
"I want European consumers to finally feel that they are treated equally, regardless of which country they come from," said report author Sehnalová. "There neither should be second-class consumers in the EU, nor second-class products."
Following the Parliament vote, the report will be forwarded to the European Commission for consideration.
Studies have shown that food and other products marketed in some central and eastern EU countries, although safe, can be of a lower quality than the same products in the same packaging in Western Europe. This varies from less meat in meat products, to less cocoa in chocolate, no oranges in orange juice and syrup or artificial sweeteners instead of sugar:
Tests have been conducted for sodas, meat, fish or dairy products, teas and confectionery. Fish sticks contained less fish in Slovakia than in Austria (58% vs 65%). No oranges had been used for orange drinks in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, while those sold in Germany contained 3% orange concentrate. In Hungary 71 out of 96 products were different compared to the same products sold in Italy and Austria. Differences were also found for cosmetics, detergents and pet food.
Adjusting products to local tastes, preferences and prices is standard practice and can also be legal. The difference in taste might also stem from using local ingredients in local factories or cheaper ones to adjust to local purchase power. But in this case, the prices were the same or higher with no mentions on the package, which was misleading.
“If producers want to change their product and sell it under the same label, consumers need to know about the differences in each specific case otherwise they are being cheated,“ said Sehnalová, the MEP in charge.
Parliament looks into the issue
In order to better help EU countries identify these illegal practices, the European Commission issued guidelines on how to apply EU law in case of lower quality products being sold . These guidelines were presented to Parliament's internal market committee on 11 October 2017.
MEPs welcomed EU action on this issue, but said the guidelines were insufficient as they did not cover other products such as cosmetics and detergents.
Slovakian ECR member Richard Sulík said it was not about the product having to taste and cost the same, but that consumers need to be informed.
German Green member Julia Reda called the practice "insulting to consumers".
Croat S&D member Bijlana Borzan, who sponsored food tests in her own country, said: "The existing legal framework is not enough, otherwise we would not have this problem."
Polish EPP member Adam Szejnfeld said he considered the practice "criminal offence, fraud".
German EPP member Andreas Schwab said: “If the list of ingredients was correctly indicated, the product can be legally on the market.” However, Czech ALDE member Dita Charanzova said: "Telling people to just read the fine print is not enough."