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Hysteria over double standards in food products

The media in much of post-communist Europe are obsessed with a fashionable topic – the observed double standards in food products. Transnational companies sell their products – in identical packages – in many countries but the composition is sometimes different. See e.g. this Reuters story about the panic in Bulgaria or another one about Czechia (or a test reported in Radio Prague EN).

We're often calling ourselves the "dumping ground of Europe" and stuff like that. I believe that all this anxiety is painful. What makes us different is that some of us – and our politicians – still expect the governments and even the EU to dictate what citizens should eat and what food producers should offer them.

The anxiety and calls for the EU to "make us equal" completely ignore certain principles that I consider fundamentally important in this debate:

  1. consumers should have the right to choose what they want and producers should have the right to offer the healthy and legal enough products they want
  2. different nations will assign different importance to the low price of the products
  3. different nations may have differences in their preferred taste, without being able to say which one is objectively "better"
  4. different nations have different inputs and technologies so certain things have to be done differently
  5. sometimes, whenever a difference between products in two national markets is found, it's being assumed by the paranoid people that "we have the worse ones". But "different" isn't the same thing as "worse" and in some cases (e.g. coffee), we can see that products sold here are actually better
  6. the differences only affect a tiny percentage of internationally sold products, about 1% or less
The overall idea that the EU should guarantee that the same food is sold in all of Europe is just a sick example of totalitarianism in my eyes. The paranoid people consider this "equality" to be their main "principle". Well, it's too bad when someone builds on such inherently international Bolshevik principles.

Let me say a few more words about this "affair". The number of products where the differences have been observed seems very limited to me. In particular, fish fingers are mentioned all the time, and so is luncheon meat.

In products sold in the post-communist Europe, the percentage of meat tends to be somewhat lower while it is sometimes or partly replaced with mechanically separated meat. The effect is sometimes a lower price or higher profits of the food producers or distributors.

Well, if the mechanically separated meat is healthy and safe enough, it seems totally plausible to me that consumers such as Czechs will actually prefer it, or they will at least not think that true meat is so much better.

There are other differences that are sometimes quoted. Our captain who has the fancy restaurant told us that the pepper, garlic, onion bought in Austria or Germany has a stronger taste. I can't verify it but even if it is true, it may have very good reasons. Czechs are used to somewhat "dull" food. If the Indians and Mexicans tend to extremely overspice their food, I think that the Czechs have traditionally stood on the exact opposite of this quantity. It's been normal not to put any spice in food at all.

If the consumers are honestly informed about the composition of the food and if the food passes the tests of safety, limits on the content of chemicals that aren't healthy, and things like that, everything else should be left to the freedom of the consumers and producers, to the supply, demand, and competition in the markets. I find any other approach a sign of an anti-market hysteria.

The fact that the Czech government struggles for a "consistent quality of food across Europe" looks particularly bizarre for our nation that has previously fought for the right to use the term "domestic rum" for our traditional rum – which is an order of magnitude cheaper than the "real rum" – and the "butter spread" for our butter spread that is clearly a cheaper cousin of true butter. These are specific products that are particularly strongly sold on the Czech market. So why couldn't transnational companies try and sell their own special products designed for the Czech consumers?

They have to make a profit and be sure that it's large enough. The composition must be good enough for the taste of many Czech consumers and the price must be low enough so that some cheaper competition doesn't completely defeat them. And yes, even when Czechs got wealthier, they still pay more attention to the low price than other nations. People usually say that it's because "we're scum" but I don't really see it in this way. It's mostly because we are more rational. In many cases, the cheaper products end up being equally good, anyway. All these things are legitimate processes in the free markets. The result of these processes and competition struggle isn't known or shouldn't be known from the beginning and most importantly, the results may be different in different national markets.

So I am annoyed by this paranoia that the post-communist European governments have largely adopted. I think that it is this paranoia and mistrust in the free markets, and not the real or hypothetical reduction of quality of the food products, that makes us less Western.

I just watched a TV debate where Mr Petr Havel of the newly founded right-wing party of "Realists" was saying the same things as I did – and so did the TV host, to a large extent, and a cook who spoke at the end. (Faltýnek, the #2 from Babiš's holding and his ANO party, was defending the idea that the EU has to make all food products uniform across the continent.) Realists would be an OK enough party for me – I am just afraid that it has no chance to get to the Parliament which is why I may avoid the experiment of voting for them.

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