Why Eastern Europeans Want More Sugar in Their Sprite

Food quality has become a touchstone for Eastern members, who are fed up with being treated as second-class EU citizens.

Caveat emptor.

Photographer: Martin Divisek/Bloomberg

The new push for a "multi-speed Europe," in which only those countries that want a closer union pursue it, will almost inevitably fuel resentment in Eastern Europe, where politicians are already up in arms about being treated as second-class Europeans.

A battle over food quality has become a major proxy for that resentment. The Visegrad Four -- Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary -- are now working to get the European Union to acknowledge that some members are being treated less equally than others when it comes to what they eat.

In recent months, Slovakia and Hungary tested a number of branded products and found that in many cases multinational producers skimp on ingredients for products sold in Eastern Europe, substituting animal fats for vegetable ones, lowering meat and fish content, adding sweeteners instead of sugar, artificial flavors instead of fruit, palm oil instead of sunflower oil. Sprite sold in the Czech Republic contains artificial sweeteners, fructose and glucose syrup, while in Germany it's sweetened with sugar only.

The issue is not new -- studies have for years found differences in the composition of branded products sold in different European countries. Producers respond that such differences are designed to cater to local tastes (for example, Czech Sprite is identical to the product sold in the U.S. and Spain, though indeed not in Germany). There is no law that says food companies must sell exactly the same product everywhere even if they use identical branding and packaging. And the EU has rightly refused to interfere, saying concerned consumers should read the EU-regulated labels that list the ingredients and not buy a product if they don't like what they see.

But the issue keeps festering. Late last year, a Czech poll found that 88 percent of consumers were concerned about being sold inferior-quality products, and 77 percent disagreed with the producers' arguments. Some Czech and Slovak families make a point of shopping across the border in Austria -- even for products that official tests show have the same ingredients. To the populist, euro-skeptic Hungarian government, the different ingredient lists are a "food scandal."

Dual food standards were on the agenda of the EU's Agriculture and Fisheries council this week. European Commissioner Vera Jourova, representing the Czech Republic, tweeted about it in English and in Czech. "We take this issue very seriously," she wrote

The EU can do little about product unification. Mandating that products under the same brands taste the same and use the same ingredients everywhere would be just the kind of EU overregulation of which the bloc is often accused. It would also ignore the legitimate argument that national tastes differ -- and, yes, so does purchasing power. Producers don't claim a brand means absolute geographic uniformity, so they aren't even guilty of false advertising.

The Eastern European governments probably understand this -- at least, they've heard it many times before. Yet they persist, because the food issue is a proxy for other gripes. In the 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the economic differences between Eastern and Western Europe haven't dissipated, even to the extent that they've leveled out in Germany since its unification. In eastern German states, the average salary is about two-thirds as high as in the western ones; no Eastern European country except Slovenia has reached half the average German salary level.

Eastern European countries make up the top 7 EU nations in intra-EU migration. Young people leave Romania, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Baltic States in search of better work and more useful university diplomas.

It's not as if Western Europe isn't trying to level things up. The eastern members are the biggest net recipients of EU funding. Still, big differences exist. And, on a micro level, much of the new industry built since Eastern European countries joined the EU -- such as Slovakia's car factories, whose output provides 13 percent of the country's gross domestic product and more than 40 percent of its industrial output -- depends on Eastern Europeans' relatively low wages, and thus perpetuates the economic inequality.

For the benefits of membership, Eastern Europeans have long tolerated somewhat condescending treatment from the EU's founding states. Now, the nationalist governments in Hungary and Poland are setting a different kind of example. Hungary is defiantly attempting to set a conservative agenda on immigration. Poland ignores EU calls for greater judicial and media independence from the government.

Most of the Eastern European countries still have their own currencies. Some of them, despite joining the EU, have kept the post-Communist oligarchic economic model. So it's highly probable that if Europe officially goes multispeed, they will remain in the low-speed tier, slowing the pro-Western momentum they developed in the 2000s. Perhaps that's only fair: The EU's formal criteria for expansion underestimated the legacy of the East's Communist heritage.

It will probably take a successful push toward a closer union by an EU core for the Eastern European countries to start worrying about being left behind. At this point, Eastern Europeans have a major chip on their shoulder. By complaining about food ingredients, they're trying to tell the rest of the EU something far more important -- something few people in Berlin, Paris, Rome, Madrid and Brussels are in the mood to hear.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.