It cannot be a coincidence that Magyar Idők, the mouthpiece of the Orbán government, only now discovered a three-year-old study about the alleged poor quality of imported food from Western Europe. Just as it cannot be a coincidence that the following day János Lázár called the incident “the greatest scandal of the coming years.” Another battle against Brussels seems to be setting up. The charge is that allegedly identical products sold in East European countries are inferior to those sold in Western Europe. A few days ago the Slovak Ministry of Agriculture came out with this piece of news based on comparisons of products sold to Slovakia with products sold to Austria.
Upon inquiry, Magyar Idők learned that the Hungarian Ministry of Agriculture had done a similar test and that their findings were practically identical to the Slovak results. Since one must be extremely careful with Magyar Idők’s wording, let me quote the passage. It was in 2014 that “The Nemzeti Élelmiszerlánc-biztonsági Hivatal [Nébih] compared 24 identical or very similar products on the basis of their sensory qualities and their composition and description.” I don’t think a comparison can be scientific if the testers compared not only identical products but “very similar products” and if they relied on the products’ “sensory qualities.” But let’s go on. They found that all the chocolate tested was of equal quality, but in products with wafers the Austrian variety was crisper. Again, one doesn’t have to be an expert on the consistency of food products to know that age and atmospheric differences might make the wafer soggy. Nutella’s hazelnut cream, according to Nébih, was less soft than the one Austrians got. And although a certain chocolate bar filled with marzipan had exactly the same ingredients, the chocolate melted more slowly than the one in Austria did. The complaints went on and on. Even Hungarian Coke was found to be inferior to the Coke sold in Austria. Magyar Idők summed up the sad situation in Hungary with a caption under a picture of a woman looking intently at grocery store shelves: “Often in vain does a domestic shopper search, she can’t find Western quality on the shelves.”
Coca-Cola HBC promptly explained the difference in taste between the Coke sold in Austria and that sold in Hungary. In Hungary the company uses, just as it does in the United States, high fructose corn syrup, in this case made from Hungarian corn. In some other countries Coca-Cola uses sugar because of local regulations. The sugar Austria uses in its Coke may make an appreciable difference in taste. According to a Huffington Post article, 85% of people could tell the difference between regular American Coke and Mexican Coke, which still uses sugar. Moreover, 80% of them preferred the Mexican variety.
Company after company denied the existence of double standards. In the case of the Manner wafers, the company spokesman cited possible differences in transportation and storage. Some of Nestlé’s products were among the samples tested. Its spokesman pointed out that Nesquick OptiStart is actually made in Hungary and supplied from there to 17 countries, while two other Nestlé products are produced in Spain and in France. All from the same recipe. Knorr didn’t offer any explanation, but according to Zoltán Fekete, secretary general of the Magyar Márkaszövetség (Hungarian Brand Association), it is likely that Néhib was comparing apples and oranges because even the amounts of the products tested were different.
Regardless of the merits of this test, which sounds haphazard at best, the government finds it useful. There are few subjects that can arouse a Hungarian more than stories about the inferior quality of food grown and processed elsewhere. Farmers and their representatives in particular like to call all food coming from abroad “garbage.”
The claim that Hungarians are being fed Western “garbage” will turn the people against Brussels and multinational companies. Fidesz politicians add fuel to the fire when, for example, Lajos Kósa tells Hungarians: “I find this affair deeply humiliating, outrageous, and intolerable. This cannot be explained by differences in consumer taste. They bring their junk here because it is good enough for you.”
Perhaps the government is frustrated that after years of propaganda against the European Union Hungarians still overwhelmingly support Hungary’s EU membership. So now as a result of what some people call an urban legend, Agricultural Minister Sándor Fazekas, one of the least illustrious ministers in the Orbán government, ordered an all-encompassing test of 100 products. Testing has already begun. Even an opposition party, Együtt, fell for the “garbage” propaganda.
Instead of getting entrapped in all that hyperbole, let’s turn to an expert whose opinions I think we can rely on. György Raskó was a member of parliament (Magyar Demokrata Forum and later Magyar Demokrata Néppárt) between 1994 and 1998. He is an economist with a specialty in agro marketing and, together with his wife, runs a large modern farm. He is a real expert on anything to do with agriculture. I might add that he speaks English, French, German, and Spanish with such fluency that he can conduct high level negotiations in all four languages.
According to Raskó, different standards are applied to foodstuff in different countries, and the international companies have to be in compliance with these rules. In some places, for example, beet sugar must be used; in others only glucose-fructose syrup can be used. There are, of course, other considerations as well. Supermarket chains order products they can sell. It is a well-known fact that for Hungarians price is a prime consideration, given the low wages in the country. Therefore, the chains order cheaper products in the first place. The high-quality products are also available, but they don’t dominate the market because they are too expensive for most people.
One mustn’t forget that the Hungarian exporters are “biased” too. While Hungarians send their Tokaji Aszu 6 Puttonyos to Great Britain and the United States, the 4 or 5 Puttonyos go to Poland. As far as cold cuts are concerned, two-thirds of the kinds available in Hungary are not allowed to be marketed in Austria or Italy. Interestingly, the government which is so fussy about the quality of Hungarian food products allows certain ingredients in hot dogs and bologna that are not permitted in, let’s say, Austria.
I have no idea what will come of all this. It is possible that the Visegrád 4 will complain about their inferior food imports in Brussels. Since the government-inspired food scandal broke out in Hungary, the Czech government also discovered that the Germans and others are sending them “garbage” instead of food. The Hungarian media reported that the Visegrád 4 countries discussed the matter already at their last meeting.
One possibility, which an expert who was not ready to reveal his name suggested, is that the Hungarian government will try to exclude some western processed foods from the Hungarian market. Considering that domestic products are often more expensive than imported ones, such a move would only penalize the hard-up Hungarian consumers.