The Bulgarian authorities made use of a EU forum on dual quality food to issue populist messages and offensive anti-European rhetoric, which is becoming more and more commonplace in Eastern Europe. KrassenNikolov has the story.
Krassen Nikolov is a journalist specialised in judiciary affairs. He works for Mediapool and is a regular contributor for BulgarianPresidency.eu for the six months of the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU.
Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and Bulgarian Ombudsman Maya Manolova (with strong BSP background) were particularly active at the Sofia event held yesterday (30 April). Borissov announced that the big Western European supermarket chains treat Eastern Europeans as “aborigines”, selling them poor quality foods. The Ombudsman used the word “apartheid”.
Bulgaria insists that a European institution should be set up in Sofia to monitor compliance with a unified EU food standard. The Ombudsman compared this proposed service with the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF). The Bulgarian initiative however has no chances of success, also given the spectacular failure of the country’s bid to host the European Medicines Agency.
Borissov threatened that he will feed his EU high gests at the Western Balkans summit in Sofia (16-17 May) with food of poorer quality, sold in Bulgaria, so that they will get a sense of what it is all about. According to him, the main problem is in the Western supermarket chains (the biggest are Kaufland, Billa and Lidl) whish sell these goods of lower quality.
“We made a compromise for South Stream, but we will not do it for the food,” Borissov said.
Bulgaria indeed gave up its role in the South Stream gas pipeline project, but this was mainly because the Inter-Governmental agreement contained clauses in blatant breach of EU law, including promises that only Russian, Bulgarian and Greek companies would participate.
“I would be terribly ashamed to be in the place of the big food chains …. Which European experts studied the baby’s taste and deducted that they love palm oil? Everyone who knows me are aware that I am one of the biggest supporters of the EU idea. But I could never imagine that it was possible for such big companies to do such a thing. We have treated them with great respect, we helped us to enter the market in Bulgaria. Don’t you think this is scandalous”, the prime minister emotionally asked a rhetorical question.
He went on: “Which wise guy made 100 million people to be like aborigines?”, referring to the number of Eastern Europeans in the 500-million EU.
Then he made the rather controversial conclusion that the country’s healthcare spending has increased from €0.5 billion to €2.5 billion a year due to the rise in cardiovascular disease. However, all studies show that the healthcare costs in the country are increasing due to the lack of reforms in the system, the enormous corruption and harmful habits of the Bulgarians. The country is the penultimate place in the EU for practice of sports and among the first for smoking addiction.
“It is so humiliating that I should speak about this topic, and that people [Bulgarians] should look for acquaintances to buy baby food from the West …”, Borissov said, which is another extremely false statement.
He went on recycling old jokes from communism. “During the military service, there was a joke: “The military service is heavy, but on the other hand, it’s long”, and now we can say it for food – “Foods are harmful, but on the other hand, they are expensive”, Borissov lashed out.
Roosevelt, Stalin, Churchill, and cheese without milk …
Then the Bulgarian Prime Minister jumped into geopolitics to slam poor quality salami: “When Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill sat down and split the world, was it our fault remaining on the wrong side of the dividing line?”
Even the double quality of food is a fact, many Bulgarian products are also of very poor quality. The living standard in Bulgaria is one of the lowest in the EU and Bulgarians buy cheaper products. The populist Bulgarian premier is playing up to anti-EU sentiment among large numbers of his supporters. It should be remembered that his successive cabinets have done nothing to address much worse food quality issues.
In Bulgaria, the poorest EU country, “replacement” of “ersatz” products are allowed. Local producers sell cheese which doesn’t contain any milk. Cheap wine which does not contain a single grape molecule is also marketed by Bulgarian firms.
Many meat and dairy products of Bulgarian descent have a surprisingly low quality and are filled with artificial additives in order to keep the low price. This was identified by a series of studies by the “Aktivni potrebiteli” NGO. Thus, Western foods, even if of lower quality than those in Western Europe, are often much better than the bulk Bulgarian products. The corruption among the state bodies responsible for controlling the quality of this food is a public secret.
Borissov slammed the big western supermarket chain, but the same foods are sold in Bulgarian chains as well. Apparently, his aim is hardly the quality of food, but the chance to use anti-Western rhetoric.
The forum in Sofia concluded with a statement saying that the dual food standard should be abolished within the EU. The declaration has been signed by all member states. Vera Yourova said the political document was “strong”.
On 11 April, the European Commission announced it would prohibit dual quality food across the bloc, following complaints and pressure from Central and Eastern European (CEE) member states.
“The EC’s legal standpoint for double standards is that it is an unfair practice,” said EU Justice and Consumers Commissioner Vĕra Jourová. Brussels plans to make changes to three EU directives on food composition, quality assessment methodology and unfair commercial practices. This must be done by 1 January 2020.
So far, the Bulgarian authorities have made three studies on food quality, but they cannot claim to be representative for the country’s market. Actually, those studies have shown that in 82% of the products checked there was no difference between those sold on the Bulgarian market and abroad.
The most significant differences in the composition of the products were found in baby milk. The products sold in Bulgaria contain more palm oil and vegetable fats than those sold in western countries. The other difference was in mozzarella, which has more brine and less cheese. There was an issue with children’s purees and pasta, which in Bulgaria are nearly twice as expensive as in other Western European countries.
The food industry in Europe generates €1 trillion a year and employs 4.25 million people. The Bulgarian market is a relatively a small part of it, with a turnover of €5 billion.