Czech-Polish food row heats up

Illustrative photo: Filip Jandourek

The drawn-out Czech-Polish dispute over the quality of food imports this week reached a new level after Polish officials accused the Czech authorities and media of waging a campaign aimed at hurting Polish food sales in the country. Czech officials, meanwhile, complain about poor quality of some Polish foodstuffs, and say inspections prove they fail to meet set standards much more often that Czech products.

Petr Bendl,  photo: Filip Jandourek
The most recent instalment in the food row between Poland and the Czech Republic came in early April when the analgesic drug phenylbutazone was found in horse meat sold in northern Moravia. The Czech food inspection agency said the meat had been imported from Poland, and Polish authorities were informed of the problem. Czech Agriculture Minister Petr Bendl spoke to Czech Radio about the incident.

“We were tipped off that some products sold here contained undeclared horse meat. So the authorities focused on meat and meat products, and collected over 100 samples. Some of them were found to contain phenylbutazone, an analgesic drug used as a pain killer for race horses, which should definitely not be used in food products due to its negative effects on human health.”

The Polish reaction came two days later: the country’s chief veterinarian officer, Janusz Zwionzek, said Czechs jumped to conclusions, and asked for proof that the contaminated horse meat did in fact come from Poland. Meanwhile, the Czech Agriculture and Food Inspection Authority said they had already sent to Warsaw all the relevant information, including documents proving the Polish origin of the meat. This week, the Polish embassy in Prague came out strongly against what they called a “massive campaign” against Polish food waged by the Czech authorities and media. Marek Minarczuk is Polish chargé d’affaires in Prague.

“We are quite worried about the impact of the campaign, or sort of campaign, that’s been taking place here against Polish food imports. We wanted to indicate that no generalizations should be made in this regard because of course, there are some food producers in Poland who do bad things but I’m convinced that 99 percent of them are well-organized, take care of their products, procedures, and so on.”

Illustrative photo: Filip Jandourek,  Czech Radio
Poland is a major supplier of food to the Czech Republic. Food imports from that country last year amounted to 870 million euro, which represents a 16-percent share of the Czech market. But Mr Minarczuk says the negative image of Polish food has already begun hurting sales.

“Polish food in general has been selling well and last year, we registered a 7.6-percent increase in the sale of Polish food products. But we have also registered that labelled food, or products from certain specific producers, have been selling worse than earlier. We also know that some major Czech food producers buy for instance Polish meat and process it here in the Czech Republic with their labels.”

This month’s spat over the origin of the contaminated horse meat was the latest in a series of disputes over the quality of Polish food imports to the Czech Republic. The row started last February when it turned out that over 90 Polish producers had been using so-called industrial salt, a chemical by-product, in processing meat. As a result, hundreds of tons of food products were pulled off the market in Poland.

No foodstuffs containing industrial salt were in fact discovered in the Czech Republic. But the country’s food inspection agency complained their Polish colleagues refused to reveal which producers were implicated in the scandal, making it impossible to trace the tainted food. Since then, however, there have been several incidents that brought the quality of Polish food imports to the Czech Republic into question.

In April 2012, Czech food inspectors ordered crackers made of contaminated powdered eggs from Poland to be pulled off the market; later that month, Polish pickles and sauerkraut were recalled that were found to contain formic acid, banned under Czech food standards. And this January, traces of rat poison were detected in powdered milk used in wafers and other sweets produced by the Polish firm Magnolia. Poland’s chargé d’affaires in Prague Marek Minarczuk argues that according to a website put up by the Czech Agriculture Ministry, Polish food products are no worse than those made in the Czech Republic

Illustrative photo: archive of Radio Prague
“When you look at what has been said about Polish food here in the Czech Republic, [it’s obvious] there have been many complaints. But when you look at the website put up by the Czech Agriculture Ministry called Food Pillory, you can easily see that their presentation of Polish food of dubious quality is not higher than that of Czech food, Slovak food, or food from other countries. So our intention is to call for a balanced approach, and not use Polish food as a scapegoat.”

But other Czech official information channels reveal a different score: according to the statistics of the food inspection authority, 24.1 percent of Polish food products examined in 2012 failed the Czech food standards, compared to the 14.5-percent fail rate registered in Czech foodstuffs. Mr Minarczuk from the Polish embassy says this is no proof.

“On the one hand, I see such announcements. On the other, I see what’s on the Food Pillory website. I think the best way to solve this dispute would be to meet and discuss the issue; the first occasion to do so will be the visit of the Polish agriculture minister that is planned for early May. At the same time, a round table of Polish and Czech food producers and food inspection authorities from both countries should take place here in Prague.”

Polish officials also argue that while complaints about the low-quality of Polish foodstuffs are frequent in the Czech Republic, they do not come from other countries that receive much more of their production, mainly Germany and the UK. This could be due to the fact that on the price-oriented Czech market, cheaper products are in much higher demand, says journalist Petr Havel, who covers the agriculture and food industry.

“Most Czech consumers still prefer food products in the lowest price range, which means they buy low-quality products. This could mean that Polish exports to the Czech Republic consist of cheaper and perhaps also higher-risk products whereas Polish food sold in other countries could be of higher quality. But this is mere speculation because as far as I know, no such analysis has been done.”

Mr Havel also believes the dispute has become too emotional on both sides.

Illustrative photo: Štěpánka Budková
“It’s true that in some cases, Czech inspectors have shown that several Polish foodstuffs breached the norms. But on the other hand, I think Czech food producers have been using these issues to discredit all Polish food production in the eyes of consumers which is undeserved. Poland produces top-quality as well as low-quality food and you cannot say all Polish food products are of poor quality.”

Poland’s Agriculture Minister Stanisław Kalemba is set to arrive in the Czech Republic early next month for talks with his Czech counterpart, Petr Bendl. Officials from the two countries’ food inspection agencies will also hold talks during the visit which should improve exchange of information the lack of which has been a major complaint of Czech officials. Minister Bendl again.

“I think that Polish food exports to the Czech Republic include quality products as well as less quality products, as we know from experience. That’s why we need to look how Czech and Polish food standards compare.

“We also need an information-sharing system that would ensure the mutual exchange of information about which products have been affected so that the Czech authorities can intervene, just like we do whenever we come across some problematic products here. We then notify the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) to make sure the authorities in EU countries have the required information.”

Czech and Polish officials are set to meet in Prague on May 6. The talks may improve communication between the countries’ authorities but they are unlikely to end the food dispute for good. Complaints about Polish food imports to Slovakia were the subject of a joint session of the Polish and Slovak governments last month – but the war of words between Warsaw and Bratislava continues unabated.