The frozen fish sticks you'll find in a Prague supermarket may be short on one key ingredient: fish.
And that's not because the Czech Republic is landlocked.
For years, governments and consumer advocates have been decrying what they call lower quality standards for packaged food available in Central and Eastern Europe, as compared with identically branded items sold in Western European countries. Hop the train east from Berlin to Warsaw, and you may find that the same popular soft drink brand is made with artificial sweeteners, rather than real sugar; a carton of juice comes with an extra serving of stabilizers; and lunchmeat is produced with smaller quantities of actual meat.
Yet despite the differences in ingredients, these products look the same on supermarket shelves from Brussels to Bratislava, leading some to ask — as did Polish daily Gazeta Prawna — "Is it food racism?"
But recent activity in the upper echelons of EU politics suggests that awareness of the so-called dual-quality foods finally may have reached a critical mass.
"I must say that the progress is speeding up a little bit lately," said Olga Sehnalová, a Czech member of the European Parliament and a longtime consumer-protection advocate.
In February, the Slovak and Hungarian delegations to the Agriculture and Fisheries Council of the European Union presented the findings of a survey comparing 22 Slovak supermarket products with their equivalents in Austria, the first study of its kind to be carried out on a national level. The results were discussed in a meeting of the European Commission in early March, and the Council may pick up the discussion again later this month.
And the issue has reached the highest leadership of all four of the so-called Visegrad countries — the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland — who convened at a summit this March to discuss the apparent double standard.
Critics of the dual-quality foodstuffs argue that discriminating against Central and Eastern Europeans erodes consumer confidence in the region. But as long as these products are safe and accurately labeled, food producers are within their legal rights to alter ingredient lists to suit local markets.
That practice, says Sehnalová, has allowed companies to discriminate against consumers in Europe's east by frequently selling them products made with cheaper, less nutritional ingredients — sometimes at even higher prices than their Western equivalents.
Sehnalová drew attention to the issue in 2015, when she spearheaded a study conducted by the University of Chemistry and Technology in Prague comparing some two dozen products sold in the Czech Republic with their equivalents in Germany. The Iglo-brand fish sticks sold in Prague contained 7 percent less fish than the same product sold in Germany — but the fish sticks in Prague cost twice as much. Sprite, sweetened with sugar in Germany, was made with high-fructose corn syrup, aspartame, and acesulfame (a zero-calorie sweetener) and sold at a higher price point in the Czech Republic. Czech Nestea lemon-flavored iced tea, which contained a mix of sweeteners not found in its German counterpart, also had 40 percent less tea extract and a slightly higher sticker price.
"With some products, we are in fact Europe's garbage can," Czech Agriculture Minister Marian Jurečka told Reuters in February.
Yet several companies have bristled at the allegations of short-changing Central Europeans. Nomad Foods, the U.K.-based company behind the Iglo brand, insists that the fish sticks sold in Hungary and Slovakia "are essentially the same ones as we sell in the U.K. under the Birds Eye brand ... with the same fish content," according to Sinead Noble, director of corporate affairs. "Even though we might sell a product across Europe, we always adapt that product to reflect local taste and preference," Noble explained in an email to The Salt.
Michael Ravn, head of communications at Tulip Food Company, said that the two Tulip luncheon meats compared in the Czech university study were actually different products entirely. "The German Frühstücksfleish consists of only pork meat, while the Czech Luncheon Meat — as stated on the [label] — is a mix or pork and chicken meat," Ravn said. Tulip's canned meat products, which are sold in 120 countries worldwide, are formulated "taking into account the different preferences regarding taste, market demands and prices," he added.
Unlike Jurečka, Sehnalová said she would never go so far as to call Central Europe a "garbage can," because only about a third of the products in the studies she has taken part in have indicated differences in ingredients from their Western European equivalents. But like many of her colleagues, she believes that a pan-European market survey is necessary to provide enough data for EU authorities to assess differences in food and other consumer products sold across the continent.
In late June, Sehnalová put forth a pilot project for one such survey, which is currently being evaluated by the European Commission. She said she believes that the survey would provide relevant data to address the discrepancies in quality she observed by taking part in two previous comparison studies.
Over the phone, however, she hedged her optimism. "After all these years, I'm finally seeing some progress," she said, "so I'm mildly optimistic that we are moving in the right direction."
But she added quickly: "I'm fairly convinced that it could have been done much sooner."
Morgan Childs is a freelance journalist based in Prague. She's on Twitter @MorganAChilds