Consumer protection advocate: people need to say what’s wrong

Twenty-two years after the fall of communism Czech shops are crammed with goods and people have long forgotten the hours they spent waiting in line to buy bananas and oranges for their Christmas table – a rare treat unavailable throughout the year. Shopping malls and supermarkets now offer a wide variety of goods sold across Europe. But beneath the surface of the glossy packaging –there’s a small hitch. Discerning shoppers often find that certain brand products they relished abroad still don’t taste quite as good in the Czech Republic. I met up with Miroslav Huml from the consumer protection agency spotř to find out why this may be so and how the position of the Czech consumer has changed over the years.

Miroslav Huml,  photo: Czech Television
“Maybe the biggest change is in the vast selection of products on the market that give people a choice. Twenty years ago there were only a restricted number of items that were the same in every shop. Today people have many shops and chain stores to choose from –many of them German – and people can take their pick from a wide selection of goods. Of course, sometimes there is a problem with quality. Because often people do not recognize quality or even bother to read food labels to find out what it is they are buying. You can always check the vegetable content in a specific soup but consumers don’t read labels –they often only look at the price. I think it is a problem because of pressure to keep prices low.”

But there has been a lot of criticism in the media regarding the quality of food products that these chain stores sell here in the Czech Republic and comparisons indicate that for the same amount of money, for the same price Czechs buying products here are not getting the same quality as Germans who are buying the same product in Germany from the same food chain. For instance if we look at ketchup the tomato content is much lower, in marmalade the fruit content is much lower and so on. So what’s behind this – because it is clearly not in the price. So why aren’t we getting the same quality?

“I think that unfortunately you are right. I spent one year in Germany and I know that the price of basic food products is in many cases lower than in the Czech Republic. So where is the problem? I think that one factor is VAT. And since our government is planning to raise the VAT to 20 percent in the coming years I am worried that things will be very bad for Czech consumers.”

So you expect the quality of goods to slide even lower?

Illustrative photo: archive of Radio Prague
“Yes, definitely. And the second problem is that the Czech market is not as big as the German one, so the turnover is smaller and there is pressure to get a bigger profit on separate items. For instance in Germany if you are selling ketchup you can have a profit of 10 percent from every bottle. But in the Czech Republic you would aim to have a 30 percent profit margin.”

But if we look at markets like Belgium or the Netherlands which are more comparable –would shoppers find the kind of products that Czechs are buying on their supermarket shelves? Is it not that sometimes these chains feel that what they send to what is still often referred to as the post-communist world need not be of as high quality because shoppers here are not so discerning?

“Yes, but people in Belgium or the Netherlands are generally richer than in the Czech Republic. And they have a choice whether to buy cheaper goods or more expensive high-quality products. On the one hand there are Coloroid stores where the quality is not particularly high but prices are friendly, on the other hand there are the G.B. supermarkets which offer high quality products.”

According to a poll I saw recently, a third of Czechs would be willing to pay more for better-quality products. Are these products available?

“I think today this may be a problem. You can get them in the bigger cities, where you can buy quality cheese and the best products from around the world, but not out in the country. In smaller towns it is impossible to get something special –people buy standard supermarket products where the quality may not be so good.”

So what will it take for the situation to change for the better?

“Well – I am not so optimistic about anything changing in the immediate future because the economic forecasts are not good. We will be impacted by a recession in Europe and people are looking for ways to save money. But I hope that in five or ten years’ time the situation will improve. After all the Czech Republic neighbours on Germany and Austria and I am sure that in time the income of the Czech population will rise and the living standard will reach that of our neighbours. I hope that when that happens people will think more about their health and quality than just about money. ”

When we talk about products lacking in quality – are there not norms on meat and dairy products that are valid across the EU and that would protect consumers to some extent at least?

“Such norms are in place –they were in effect both before and after we entered the EU – the problem is that they only apply to foods that can be a health hazard in some way. So those are separate issues – quality and health. You can have ketchup containing just 27 percent tomatoes – it may not taste as good as that with a 60 percent tomato content –but it will not endanger your health. So the norms do not apply.”

Do people complain about the quality of food products – what do the most frequent complaints relate to?

“They complain about the taste. Many people have told me that they bought something in Germany such as lemonade or Coca-Cola for instance and it tasted different in Germany and the Czech Republic. Taste is something that people can easily compare. Comparing labels is more complicated and not many people do it – but the taste of a product is an instant give-away. I have talked about this with many people who travel and compare. But I heard that in Hungary or Slovakia the situation is even worse. The situation in the Czech Republic is somewhere in the middle. Possibly the worst situation is in Bulgarian in this respect.”

If you were to give your clients a single piece of advice –what would it be?

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
“I think it is necessary to speak out and say what you think and what you would like to have. For instance if you go to a supermarket and see bad-quality products or products going bad you should report it to the Food Inspection Office who are there to deal with it. The problem is that people still think they are not in a position to change anything. They see that something is wrong, or not as it should be, but they do not take any steps to change it. They can inform several organizations –the Business Inspection Bureau or any number of consumer protection associations –including our own. And we can do something about their complaint. But it is first necessary to say what I would like to have. “