Food inspections uncover horrific practices at supermarket chains
When food inspectors uncovered horrific practices at a supermarket several weeks ago Czech consumers recoiled in horror at what they saw and heard - rotten meat being marinated in order to cover up the fact that it had gone green, salami being washed in salt and vinegar to get rid of the bad smell before being put back on sale and salespeople being ordered to change the use-by date on products. But there was worse to come: what was seen as a gross violation of sales ethics in one store has surfaced in many others. And many Czechs are now wondering whether any big store is "safe".
Doing one's weekly shopping has turned into a major challenge. People who never bothered to glance at use-by dates are now inspecting groceries closely and reading the small print on the packaging before they throw goods into their shopping cart. Avoiding certain stores no longer seems to be the solution. Almost every day food and hygiene inspectors add yet another chain store to their black-list. Some consumers have gone back to shopping in small select stores but, in general, public trust is gone. Karel Pavlik of the Association for Protection of Consumers says the problem lies in poor sales ethics, low fines and not enough sustained pressure from inspectors.
"I think this is not just a problem of the past few days. It is a long-term problem and it is necessary to teach entrepreneurs and supermarkets to behave differently."
This suggests that this area has been badly neglected in the past. What were food and hygiene inspectors doing all along? Does this mean we have been eating rotten food for months and years?
"In some cases this might well be so, but I think that in general things are not bad as they may now seem."
Well, food inspectors have found fault with Ahold, Delvita, Carrefour, Billa and Julius Meinl, among others, and they all claim it was the fault of an individual but it actually seems more like a matter of policy? What do you think about that?
"It is very difficult to judge this without any specific evidence. For certain each supermarket is motivated to make as big a profit as possible and this may be the result."
The Czech Inspection Office has been getting an increasing number of complaints from the public and chain stores around the country are under intense scrutiny. So how come they are still selling rotten meat and stale products? One reason is the low fines that they get. A fine of two million - which is the current ceiling set by the law - barely touches a chain store's profit margin. The Trade and Industry ministry is now trying to push though a ceiling of 50 million, which should be more effective in raising sales ethics.
When I spoke to shoppers in the city centre earlier today many said they now shopped for food in smaller stores, others appeared to be resigned to the risk they were taking.
"It is a bad state of affairs, very bad. And the problem is in our laws. The law does not allow them to be punished in a way that would really hit them where it hurts."
"The stores in question should be closed down. It's awful, really. But I don't shop there. I go to a small private butcher where the meat is always fresh. I have yet to buy meat at a supermarket."
"That's how it was, is and always will be. The big food chains economize where they can. And they don't throw out stale goods. Many have their own processing plants and we consumers have little chance of finding out what goes on. I shop there too and take a risk, just like thousands of others."