The EU has announced a new directive to ban the practice of manufacturing inferior products for the Eastern European market, after studies showed that hundreds of foods produced by well-known multinationals were inferior compared with those made for Western Europe.

The EU investigated complaints from member states in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) and discovered that the practice, known as ‘dual food’, was widespread, and implicated top processors in the food and drink industry.

The European Commission plans to roll out a new technique for member governments to test the quality of branded products, which should be consistent across the continent.

Major food companies Birds Eye, Coca-Cola, Lidl, Spar and Pepsi have responded to the claims, denying accusations of creating inferior products for the Eastern European market.

Commissioner for justice, consumers and gender equality Věra Jourová said that many CEE governments, including her home state the Czech Republic, affirmed the need for specific legislation to ban the practice. The draft of the new directive has now been completed.

Jourová noted that some players in the food industry dispute the extent of the problem and raised ‘legitimate concerns’ over disrupting the variety of food products offered by European member states.

She said: “We are not dictating tastes. I am not touching Danish herrings, I am not touching Czech sausages. If there exists a brand that is marketed in many member states, there is legitimate expectation that the brand will contain the same thing, and it doesn’t in cases.

“I am not friendly towards legislation when there are other ways to do the same thing. But I have received very clear responses from the member states that they want to see this in legislation.”

The legislation allows for the production of different foods bearing the same branding if the company can prove that it is has done so to adhere to taste preferences of consumers in a particular region.  Its implementation is part of a wider project to increase consumer confidence in Europe.

Jourová added: “In a globalised world where the big companies have a huge advantage over individual consumers, we need to level the odds. Consumer authorities will finally get teeth to punish the cheaters. It cannot be cheap to cheat.”

In his last State of the Union address in September, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said: “I will not accept that in some parts of Europe, people are sold food of lower quality than in other countries, despite the packaging and branding being identical. Slovaks do not deserve less fish in their fish fingers, Hungarians less meat in their meals, Czechs less cacao in their chocolate.”

The Slovenian consumer association (ZPS) examined pairs of 32 identical products from Slovenia and Austria and found that ten food items produced for Slovenia were inferior to their Austrian counterparts.

ZPS food expert Nika Kremic said of the study: “We used a sensory board of six-to-eight trained experts, all of whom have a better palate than most people. The Milka look the same, but if you look at the ingredient list – of which only 10% of people do – there is an additive in the Slovenian Milka not present in Austrian Milka. This isn’t hidden, but you need to read it in the small print.”

CEE leaders responded to the ‘dual food’ issue, with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán declaring it ‘the biggest scandal of the recent past’, while Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov said the practices amounted to ‘food apartheid’.