Czech-Polish relations sour over food export suspicions

Illustrative photo: archive of Radio Prague

Phrases about friendship being cemented by food do not hold true of the current relations between the Czech Republic and Poland. Tensions over Polish food exports have surfaced again due to the composition and comments coming out of the new Czech government.

Illustrative photo: archive of Radio Prague
Polish food producers are currently looking askance at the presence of Czech agro-chemicals billionaire Andrej Babiš as the second most powerful man in the new coalition government and comments coming out of the Ministry of Agriculture about increased food self sufficiency.

Polish media and food producers have accused Babiš of fuelling a media campaign against Polish imports to drive them out of the market and have warned that they will insist that their government retaliates in kind if specific barriers are put in place.

ANO leader and newly installed minister of finance, Babiš’ heads the Czech Republic’s and Slovakia’s biggest agriculture and food group, Agrofert. Products Agrofert’s 200 daughter companies includes bread, milk, butter, yogurt, meat products and chicken.

Andrej Babiš,  photo: Filip Jandourek
In many cases they are competing directly for space on supermarket shelves and for shoppers’ attention with rival Polish brands. Babiš, who says he has cut connections with his company before entering office, insists that he has no agenda or powers to influence the food market. He adds, however, that Czech food producers have never been hit by the sort of scandals that have hit Polish importers.

The biggest scandal blew up at the start of 2012 when it was revealed that chemically produced industrial salt had been used by a series of Polish producers in their meat products. Other scandals have concerned banned antibiotics in meat, banned acids in pickles, rat poison in wafers, and pesticide in mushrooms. Polish authorities said they were being subjected to an unfair smear campaign and last year the embassy in Prague hit back by launching a food fair to showcase the best the country can offer.

Calls made back then in Prague for improved communications with Warsaw when cases of cross border food contamination occur and now back again on the table. Czech Minister of Agriculture Marian Jurečka says that is one of the points that he will put to his Polish counterpart when they are due to meet at a food fair in Brno at the end of this month.

Marian Jurečka,  photo: CTK
But as Jurečka insisted in an interview on Czech Television, he is not picking out Polish producers in particular. “In a far as foodstuffs are concerned, I would like to say that the main concern for us and the ministry of agriculture is to punish poor quality products regardless of whether they come from Poland or anywhere else. I don’t want to go against Polish producers head on. There are a lot of Polish foodstuffs which are quality.”

The ministry is, however, also committed to boosting the share of Czech foodstuffs on the local market. And with Polish sales responsible for around 16% of the Czech food consumption and growing, that ambition could curb Poles on their third biggest export market.