The issue of dual quality of products was first brought in the public eye back in 2011, when a study by the Association of Consumers of Slovakia showed that the composition and prices of six branded food products differed substantially in seven EU Member States. As an MEP, I addressed the European Commission for the first time with the interpellation if the Commission is aware of possible differences in products that are advertised and distributed under the same brand and packaging, and whether this might be a problem related to the functioning of the single market and consumers protection.
The very vague and dismissive response led to my serious interest into this topic and in 2013 I consequently managed to call for the Policy for the Commission to carry out a meaningful investigation into the dual quality issue via the European Parliament’s resolution on new agenda for European Consumer. This would make it possible to evaluate whether there is a need for adjustment of existing Union legislation. An engagement of Visegrad countries’ Prime Ministers followed by President Juncker’s 2017 State of the Union Address, during which he stated that it is not acceptable that in some parts of Europe people are sold food of lower quality than in other countries, meant definitive dual quality penetration on the European agenda.
No one doubts today, after the publication of studies conducted in ten Member States so far, whether dual quality standards exist. Even the Commission, which used to dismiss consumers simply by saying that they have different taste or price preferences in different countries, are now convinced. Studies made on brand loyalty demonstrate that brands act in the mind of consumers as a certificate for a controlled and constant quality and consumers naturally expect that the branded products do not differ depending of place of purchase.
Recent initiatives announced by the Commission seem to be a step in the right direction. The amendment to the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive which indicates the Commission’s intention to explicitly enable national authorities to assess and address misleading practices involving the marketing of products as being identical in several EU countries if their composition or characteristics are significantly different shows particular promise, despite containing several unclear provisions that need to be clarified. Experiences of competent authorities suggest that they have been unable to effectively tackle any specific cases of dual quality at national level.
A worrying part of the proposal from my point of view is the open list of so called “legitimate factors” that could jeopardize competent authorities’ ability to undertake assessments and to apply the law. I firmly believe that consumer preferences should not be used as an excuse for lowering quality in different markets. Product differentiation and innovation should not be restricted, but consumers cannot be misled. On the contrary, consumers must be transparently and clearly informed and aware of any adjustments, where they exist, for each product and not in general terms.
The outcome of the legislative process should be a clear definition of what can be considered as dual quality and how each case should be assessed and addressed by competent authorities. We cannot afford to lose the chance to move from the general proclamations to ensure that consumers in the single market can finally have confidence that they are treated fairly and equally across the European Union.
The Law Society would like to thank Olga Sehnalová MEP (S&D) for contribuing this article.