UK may get substandard versions of consumer goods unless Government takes action, writes Jane Bradley.
In Romania, there is a chocolate spread, a sort of local version of Nutella, called Fineti. It is nowhere near as chocolatey, rich, or spreadable as Nutella.
But, it is a fraction of the price and I spent the best part of one summer living off it in the late 1990s, spread on crusty white bread. I have fond memories of that time. The real deal was available too, in some shops at least, but the price difference made it a no brainer to invest in the home-grown version. In those days, the standard of living in central and eastern European countries – those which had previously spent the best part of half a century behind an Iron
Curtain – was substantially lower than in the likes of the UK, Germany or France. As time has gone on, however, wages have increased. Many of the former Eastern Bloc countries are now part of the European Union and while salaries are still nowhere near on a par with those of their western counterparts, they are generally moving in the right direction. Now, it has become widely acknowledged that the tried and tested brands, including Nutella, have actually been shortchanging countries in the former Eastern Bloc for years. The fact that the local products were not necessarily of the highest quality – having been produced in post-Communist factories, often to Communist-era recipes – has allowed big, multinational brands to claim that “local tastes” force them to cut corners.
And cut corners they have, sparking allegations of “grocery racism” by the Polish media.
According to investigations later evaluated by the European Commission’s consumers commissioner Vera Jourová, a specific brand of fish fingers contained less fish in Slovakia than in neighbouring Austria. And Nutella has a higher cocoa content in Germany than in Hungary, where the chief-of-staff to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has described the situation as “the biggest scandal of the recent past”.
Spar, whose own-brand strawberry yoghurt in Slovenia was found to have 40 per cent less strawberry than the Austrian version, is also guilty of offering a substandard product in the east of Europe, while washing brands such as Persil and Ariel have been accused of charging higher prices for a bottle containing a smaller amount of product.
Of course, the manufacturers have a point. Perhaps, like the Scots who mourn the higher sugar – and therefore arguably unhealthier – version of Irn Bru – axed in favour of a sweetner-filled recipe announced earlier this month – Romanians have actually got used to the lower cocoa content Forneti and would therefore be floored by the full-power German-style Nutella. Perhaps Slovaks really would recoil from extra-fishy fish fingers, preferring to fill their stomachs with processed breadcrumb. Who knows?
Fred Roeder, of the Consumer Choice Center, which campaigns for deregulation, insists that the manufacturers are right – saying that “no one forces consumers to purchase any particular brand”.
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Yet if the only alternative to lower cocoa Nutella is, for example, the already budget Fineti, what choice do people living in these countries actually have? We are all, no matter where we live, at the mercy of manufacturers, who have the power to change what they have on offer at any given time.
Over the past decade in the UK, a large number of well-known brands have cut back their offerings, sneakily reducing their pack size by a couple of biscuits, or making a packet marginally smaller, but charging the same price.
A report by consumer group Which? – conducted in 2012, after the recession had been officially over for two years – found that many brands had sneakily cut the size of a familiar product, but continued to charge the same price.
Walkers Crisps was one of the named culprits, shaving 2g – six per cent – off its pack size, bringing them down to 32.5g, but maintaining the 49p price. It remains at the smaller size today. Meanwhile, Bassetts Liquorice Allsorts removed the equivalent of six sweets from its typical bag, without any reduction in the price. In his State of the Union address in September, EU president Jean-Claude Juncker pledged that he would tackle the problem. He insisted that “Slovaks do not deserve less fish in their fish fingers. Hungarians less meat in their meals” or “Czechs less cacao in their chocolate”.
He added: “In a Union of equals, there can be no second-class consumers either.” For EU law outlaws such practices already. And now, Juncker says, the EU wants to equip national authorities with stronger powers to cut out these illegal practices. And we could soon find ourselves in the same position as the eastern and central European nations – vulnerable to corporate greed. Just last month, the House of Lords warned that the UK Government has given no information on consumer rights and protection after Brexit. The Lords’ EU Justice Sub-Committee called on the Government to explain exactly how it intends to ensure that UK citizens’ consumer rights will be protected and enforced after the UK leaves the European Union. It has not yet received a response.
We, of course, have the right not to buy their substandard or reduced value goods. But when you’re partial to a biscuit made by a particular brand, it is perhaps difficult to switch. We know it is. After all, how many times have we spurned cheaper alternatives on offer from discount retailers – or even supermarket own-brand products – and doggedly stuck to our favoured product? In or out of the EU, we need to make sure that we vote with our feet when companies try to sneak in these cost-cutting measures. For we will have no Juncker to say that Scots do not deserve less marshmallow in our teacakes – not that I’m suggesting such a thing would ever befall our national snack.
However, what I am saying is that we consumers will have to fight our own corner.