About a month ago the Hungarian government suddenly discovered a test from 2014 that “proved” that multinational companies sell inferior varieties of their products to the poor Central and East European countries. Many Hungarians, in fact, are convinced that products in Austria or Germany are superior to the ones found on the supermarket shelves in Hungary. The test the Hungarian government was referring to sounded haphazard at best to me, and after collecting information from various sources I came to the conclusion that the story was just another of the propaganda weapons the Orbán government uses against Brussels and the West in general. But true or not, János Lázár looked into his crystal ball and deemed food discrimination “the greatest scandal of the coming years.”
It is somewhat surprising how long it took for the Orbán government to bring to the attention of the Hungarian public these alleged “double standards” since Slovakia was preoccupied with the matter already in 2016. The Slovak government was hoping that during their EU presidency they would be able to start a move toward tighter regulation of food products at the European level. But the Slovaks failed. The Czechs, who also complained, didn’t get any farther either. It turned out that there is no way to address the alleged problem without drafting new sections of the EU food law that would require years of tortuous negotiations.
It was after this early failure to remedy the alleged situation that the Visegrád countries decided to tackle the problem jointly. The question of food quality was on the agenda at the Warsaw Summit of the Visegrád Four on March 2, 2017. The Czech, Hungarian, Polish, and Slovak prime ministers claimed that some firms use cheaper ingredients in the products sold in their countries. They demanded action on the part of the European Commission and Parliament. It was a deadly serious affair as far as they were concerned. As Slovak Prime Minister Fico put it, different standards in food quality send a “dangerous political message.” Viktor Orbán claimed that “Central Europeans are treated like second-class citizens in terms of the quality of food products” and added that “our citizens must have full and comprehensive information about the quality of food they can buy in our stores.” Three Fidesz members of the European Parliament submitted a written inquiry a few days ago to the European Commission demanding action on this issue.
While the Visegrád Four were battling in Brussels, the Hungarian Ministry of Agriculture instructed the Nemzeti Élelmiszerlánc-biztonsági Hivatal/National Food Chain Safety Office (Nébih) to examine 96 products sold in Hungary and to compare them to the same products sold abroad. According to the website of the Ministry of Agriculture, the Office corroborated the results of its previous investigation of 2014. “It worries that varying differences in quality were determined with regard to 70 percent of the products examined, compared to the same products distributed in Western Europe.” But on what basis did they make the comparisons? Not, for the most part, on food chemistry but on “taste, aroma, consistency, etc.” In a few cases, the testers discovered differences in “content.”
Nébih published four expensive-looking, multi-color booklets that try to support the contention of the Hungarian government. Well, others went through the material provided by Nébih and came to entirely different conclusions. Even Magyar Hírlap announced that “there is no difference in the overwhelming majority of items” tested by the office. It was only at the very end of their article that they mentioned that Sándor Fazekas, minister of agriculture, has a different opinion.
In HVG’s amusing article titled “Fifty Shades of Blackness,” where “blackness” here means “stupidity,” we can read about some of the most ridiculous distinctions the testers discovered. For example, Nestlé’s Cookie Crisp breakfast cereal purchased abroad is lighter in color than the kind sold in Hungary. When it comes to spices, differences were found in color, smell, intensity, etc. As we know, the shelf life of spices is not at all immaterial. Spices, especially if bought already ground, lose intensity rapidly. As for olive oil, they came to the conclusion that the oil sold abroad has a yellowish color while the kind sold in Hungary is greener. (If that is really the case, the Hungarians are lucky because extra virgin olive oil should have a greenish hue.) They even compared lemons without paying the slightest attention to variety. Among Spanish lemons there are dozens of different kinds, and as long as testers disregard that crucial factor they are comparing apples and oranges instead of lemons.
Never mind that the test was a joke that failed to confirm the government’s accusations. What now? The government will pay even closer attention to what is being sold by the supermarkets. (I assume supermarkets whose parent companies are headquartered outside of Hungary will be singled out for scrutiny.) In the future, the government might demand the management of these supermarkets to be familiar with consumer protection rules and employees have detailed knowledge of the products the stores sell. The government is planning to raise the fees for inspections as well as fines. Let’s make the foreign companies pay for sins that no one committed. Of course, this is all allegedly being done in the interest of the consumer, who will end up paying more for products because of the added expenses forced upon firms. This government’s constant interference with multinational providers of goods and services, solely for political ends, is doing incredible harm to the Hungarian economy.