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Lithuania sets off alarm bells over quality of international brands' foods

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Baltic news, News from Latvia, BNN.LV, BNN-NEWS.COM, BNN-NEWS.RU

Linas Jegelevičius for the BNN

What Lithuania‘s State Food and Veterinary service (VMVT)  announced last Tuesday was big news in Lithuania, but not so of a discovery to the majority of Eastern European consumers – food of international brands sold in Western Europe and in Eastern Europe, and Lithuania, are not just the same.

There is less chocolate in the Lithuanian Milka bar than in that sold in Germany. The potato chips, Lays, rich in Germany with cheddar, barbecue, sour cream, onions and original flavours, in Lithuania, contain less all of that.

The beverage Nestea, an ice-tea off the production line of Nestle, sold in Lithuanian groceries contains more additives than that ice-tea stocked on the shelves of a Dutch supermarket. Meanwhile, the Activia yogurts in Lithuania have fewer strawberries than their analogues in Germany. And the comparisons do not end up here.

As a matter of fact, the VMVT insists, the ill practice has been not only wide-spread and deep-rooted, but known to all. In addition, the delicacies in Lithuania are sold at a higher price than in Western Europe.

«That the coffee in Germany smells better and the chocolate tastes there yummier sounded until now like unsubstantiated rumours, but now we’ve proven they were not baseless,» Bronius Markauskas, the Minister of Agriculture of the Republic of Lithuania, maintained.

For the testing, food products were fetched from supermarkets in Berlin and Vilnius. The food quality watchdog sampled 33 kinds of food products and 23 of them differed in their composition, taste, colour and consistency.

For example, Milka cookies sold in Germany contained 35 per cent of chocolate pieces and the same biscuits in Lithuania had only 32 per cent. Nutella hazelnut spread contained 7.5 per cent and 6.6 per cent of skimmed milk powder, respectively.

A similar ruckus over the foods quality has already ensued in 2011, but the kerfuffle engulfing Slovakia, Hungary, Czech Republic and some other Eastern European nations largely circumvented Lithuania then.

Grilled by the journalists as to why the Lithuanian food control service, VMVT, had not test foreign food products earlier although rumours about their quality were loud , Markauskas, the minister came up with a lame explanation that the ministry dealt with other kind of problems.

He did not rule out that the VMVT will look into the quality of non-food goods, haberdashery or household chemicals, for example.

Asked at the press conference whether the composition of foreign washing powders sold in Lithuania is different from what is sold in Western Europe, Markauskas was blunt: «We cannot rule it out. The investigation did not encompass other commodities.»

Back in July, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker had raised the issue first while meeting Slovakian government representatives and pledged to help stamp out the «totally unacceptable» sale of lower quality food products in the Eastern European markets.

«I don’t like the idea that there would be some kind of second class citizens in Europe,» Juncker said after talks in Brussels with Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico then.

A study carried out by the Slovak government had found significant quality differences in the same products sold in Slovakia and Austria.

Slovakia was prepared to hold a major summit of member states and the food companies to address the findings.

Government-backed studies in Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic also have shown that many items sold with identical packaging were of superior quality in other EU countries.

In his annual speech at the European Parliament in mid-September, Juncker condemned the situation where food producers deliver food of lower quality to some European countries than to the rest of the community and pledged to tackle the plight.

Now it is Lithuania that is ringing the alarm bell, urging the European Commission, the governing body of the European Union, to finally clamp down on what seems to be ill practice.

«Lithuania will seek that multinational companies use the same recipes for food products sold under the same brand throughout the European Union after a study has shown that the composition of some food products available in German stores differs from those in Lithuanian stores… It’s a pity that we, being part of the EU for 12 years now, are faced with such a problem,» Markauskas emphasised.

According to him, the composition of products sold in Lithuania is of lower quality because producers want to make them cheaper.

Amid the scandal, some in Lithuania are calling on the national Food and Veterinary Service to look into the production of domestic food producers. There are rumours that the export foods are richer in their ingredients than those sold for local buyers.

Foreign producers, however, dismiss the criticism, saying that products sold in different markets differ in taste, not in quality.

Nele Normak, spokeswoman for cold Coca-Cola Baltics, subsidiary of Coca-Cola that makes Nestea cold tea, said the company changed product recipes to fit tastes of local populations.

«Our Nestea cold teas are made by the same recipe in all countries, with slight differences possible for individual ingredients, which are used in light of the needs and likes of consumers in a specific country. For instance, Nestea teas in Lithuania and other Baltic states contains less added sugar, it is replaced by natural sweeteners (stevia), while in Germany we only use added sugar,» Normak said in a comment.

VMVT tests of identical products sold in Lithuania and Germany showed that cold peach tea produced in Germany contained sugar only, while the same tea in Lithuania contained sugar, fructose and steviol glycoside.

In Lithuania, strawberry content in Activia strawberry yogurt made by Danone was 8.2 per cent, as compared to 9 per cent in Germany, in addition to different colour and flavour.

Giedrė Račkauskaitė, spokeswoman for Danone in the Baltic states, said different content did not mean poorer quality, however, could not provide a broader comment until the company received results of the test.

Skaistė Sruogaitė, director of corporate affairs for the Baltic, Balkan and Adriatic states of the Mars corporation, which produces Uncle Ben’s Sweet and Sour sauce with 2.6 per cent of vegetables in Lithuania and 2.7 percent in Germany, said that the same recipe was used for the sauce, which was supplied to all markets in identical form.

«We are not familiar with the methodology of the tests that have been conducted but can assure that Uncle Ben’s Sweet and Sour sauce is made in the same factory for all European markets in line with the same recipe. The product sold in Germany and Lithuania contains 2.66 percent of vegetables. The difference specified in the tests could have been a result of rounding numbers,» said Sruogaitė.

Zita Čeponytė, chief of the Lithuanian Consumer Institute, said Lithuania could take the international companies to court over unfair commercial operations.

«There is a legal act in both Lithuania and Germany in connection to unfair commercial operations with regard to consumers. We can initiate cases against individual companies about unfair commercial operations…I believe we could use the existing legal mechanism. Of course, this is not very easy but I think possible,» Čeponytė is quoted as saying by Lithuanian media.

In her words, the EU could require all producers to create different brands for different product recipes.

Lithuania’s Ambassador to the European Union Jovita Neliupšienė told BNS, a news agency, the European Commission was expected to offer a solution. In her opinion, the more EU members speak up about poorer-quality products sold on their markets, the faster the problem will be solved.

Meanwhile, Vytenis Povilas Andriukaitis, Lithuania’s EC commissioner in charge of health and food safety, said that the European Commission had ordered the development of a unified food quality assessment methodology in the European Union (EU) to prevent different food standards in the community.

In his words, the new methodology will be drafted by the Joint Research Centre, which is the EC’s research arm helping shape Eu policies.

«We decided we need to work out a unified food quality assessment methodology. The Joint Research Centre has already been assigned the task of preparing it,» the EC member said.

Approached by BNN, Laurynas Vilimas, the executing director of Lithuania’s Association of Trade Enterprises, said that he would not like to rush with any conclusions following the VMVT findings.

«The VMVT investigators did not rule that the quality of the food products was deliberately compromised. The arguments provided by the importers sound solid too. As a matter of fact, I personally find them credible: the producers have taken into account the specifics of each region, thence the uneven amount of ingredients and the variety of flavours. The next investigation has to conclude whether the latter was the case or the global brands view Eastern Europeans as some inferior consumers,» Vilimas emphasised.

He expects the European Commission to streamline the EU member states’ food quality standards and set uniform quality norms.

«Then we would avoid such ambiguity,» he underlined.

Ref: 020/111.111.111.4989


Leave a reply

  1. Zerry says:

    It’s not only food. Also many washing liquids and shampoons sold here in east are rather often kind of light versions and mostly made in Poland. Seems that the image of brand is not so important nowadays. On the other hand consumers have no experience of good products. Therefore bluffing is easy.

  2. John says:

    very sad that global brands see the Eastern European as inferior. a real shame!

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