Bogomil Nikolov: Let's do our homework on dual-quality products

It is time for us to be proactive instead of blaming European institutions for moving slowly

We should not place the responsibility for dual-quality products entirely on the European institutions because they are only one of the instruments to counter such practices. The inactivity of national regulators, which are paid by taxpayers to monitor possible deviations from the norm, are one significant cause for this conflict. People in the west have already gone through this, but we seem intent on repeating their mistakes. We are obviously not learning from other people's experiences. So, to a certain extent, dual-quality products are of our own making, says Bogomil Nikolov, Executive Director of Active Consumers.

Mr Nikolov, it took the European Parliament (EP) and the European Commission (EC) 10 years to merely recognise the existence of so-called dual-quality products, which differentiate between markets in western and eastern Europe. But real measures are yet to be undertaken to address this discriminatory practice by producers. Do you expect the new EC to be more active in that regard?

Look, the institutional response is just one layer of the problem. There is another one beneath it which, I believe, will provide the final solution, and that layer concerns bridging the gap between the living standards in different Member States. When eastern Europe catches up with the western part of the continent in terms of development and wealth, dual-quality products will go away.

This does not sound particularly promising for Bulgarians.

On the contrary, if you visit the Czech Republic, Slovenia, and now even Poland, you will see that the disparity is increasingly being reduced. There is another side to the problem, too - how active we are as consumers. We should not place the responsibility entirely on the European institutions because they are only one of the instruments to counter such practices. If we look at the other side of this conflict, we will see that demand largely dictates such practices. One of the causes for dual-quality products is rooted in people's low purchasing power. But the more significant one centres on the lowered requirements set by national regulators, which are paid by taxpayers to monitor possible deviations from the norm. Add to that a market inexperience and even carelessness on the part of citizens as a whole. As a society, we are simply not making an effort to eliminate market flaws that have been known for years. People in the west have already gone through this, but we seem intent on repeating their mistakes. We are obviously not learning from other people's experiences. So, to a certain extent, dual-quality products are of our own making. I am in no way advocating in favour of the big multinational producers, but I do want to stress that we all have to do our homework as well.

Is your association going to take part in the new tests for which MEPs approved funding this past spring?

We plan to enter the call for proposals, whose deadline is set for 26 November. Consumer organisations across Europe are eligible. Presently, we are in discussions with our counterparts in other countries for possible joint efforts. Our attention is focused on non-food products and more specifically cosmetics and detergents. As you know, for years Bulgarians have been stuffing their car trunks with detergents they buy from northern Greece. We want to illuminate that sector too, as there have been no studies on it thus far.

I read that the methodology for these new tests was provided by the multinational producers themselves. Does that not constitute conflict of interest?

The common testing methodology that has been released was developed by the Joint Research Centre with the European Commission's Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety. But it applies strictly to food products. This is why the current call for proposals envisions drawing up testing methods. If we are approved and receive funding in the spring, we will have results by this time next year at the earliest.

It seems that solving the dual-quality problem is going to take years, as was the case with roaming fees.

Well, for swift action, you can always turn to the Bulgarian Food Safety Agency's hotline. If they can exterminate sick pigs in a matter of two weeks, they should be able to do some other work without trouble. I am saying this jokingly, and knowing that it won't happen. I am disinclined to criticise the speed with which European institutions are acting. We are better off with them doing something, albeit with a lack of haste, than with national authorities doing nothing.

How are we going to prove that our “national taste preferences”, something producers used as an argument, does not include cheaper sweeteners like glucose-fructose syrup in soft drinks, which doctors believe erodes the human liver?

Look, I believe in consumers. If they are well-informed and not duped by misleading information, they are perfectly capable of showing sound judgement. For me, personally, the topic of glucose-fructose syrup versus sugar in the ingredients is a moot point because I simply do not consume this type of drinks. Let me just remind those in the general public who expect soft drinks in Bulgaria to be made with sugar that the country has not been producing sugar for years. In other words, there is a purely economic stimulus behind this. Unlike the Germans, for example, we grow corn and not sugar beet. Nowadays, companies buy local produce. So there are many aspects to every problem. But as far as dual-quality products are concerned, the reality is that if the true motivation was to support the local economy, the big producers would not have identical packaging for products of different quality.

Isn't that the part that is considered a misleading practice?

Yes, the packaging is the same but the content is different. So in this case, “taste” is just an excuse.

When it comes to the EU, where do things stand with acrylamide, which the UN considers to be potentially carcinogenic? This compound is found in baby biscuits, waffle candy bars and many other products.

The European Commission adopted a regulation that is unfortunately not exacting enough. It sets some reference ranges but does not provide for penalties or a control mechanism. As a document, it has more of an advisory nature, which has the exact opposite effect of the intended. This is why we sounded the alarm, cautioning that either the regulation should be stringent enough or we are better off without it. There is no point in such recommendations. On a side note, educated people know that acrylamide is formed during high-temperature cooking so we produce it whenever we bake something or make French fries at home.

Your association's bulletin publishes the results of various inspections. But why does the media, and especially TV channels, not reveal the names of brands and producers that violate the law? Is there some sort of European-level ban in that regard?

No, this is simply a bad interpretation of a media law. We have even officially enquired with Bulgaria's Electronic Media Council about this. The relevant piece of legislation expressly prohibits embedded marketing. But when it comes to consumer rights, it cannot just be reported that “a telecommunications operator was fined because…” You know how influential the consumer organisations are in western Europe. This applies to financial institutions too. Everything is highly scrutinised. Analyses are constantly made, articles published. If a bank starts being reckless with its portfolio by making risky investments, the media is on top of it immediately, especially if it is a public company.

Where should we throw out old batteries, mobile phones and computers? Nowadays, people are very aware of the risks entailed by a number of waste products and their significance as resources. I am referring to the circular economy.

Perhaps it will surprise you to hear that Bulgaria is doing very well and is not in last place in collecting waste like electrical and electronic equipment, old vehicles and tires. Mechanisms for collection and recycling have been set up for all these areas. What can use some improvement are the information campaigns about who transports this type of waste and how. For example, if you have an old TV, you need to go to the website of the municipality of your residence, where you can find an entire section on waste transportation and the companies licenced to perform it. They will come to your home to take the TV off your hands and even give you a discount coupon for shopping at certain retailers. But citizens need to be more aware and actively research what they should do. This consumer awareness should be promoted on all fronts, not just as regards waste. A bit more effort is needed.

For example, for some time we have been working on the food waste issue. Statistics show that approximately a third of our food ends up in the garbage bin. People are not informed enough on that topic - how to avoid wasting food, how to plan their shopping and how to preserve food.

The EU programme on plastic waste is also far from legally binding. Will there be a change in that regard, considering how we constantly warn against the devastating effect of plastic waste on the environment?

More resolve is needed. What is being done on national and European levels are small steps - granted, in the right direction, but still negligible. They will not produce a turning point. I believe that the plastic waste issue will be solved by the transition to renewable fuel simply because plastic is a byproduct of oil refining. Once people stop using oil products in their economy and transportation, plastic will become expensive and its production will be discontinued. Then we will probably go back to the good old glass. But at this stage, oil is still a major source of energy.

I am seeing a new surge in lobbying to legalise GMO in the EU. What is the reason behind it? GMO content of over 0.9% in foods continues to not be reflected on labels in Bulgaria.

The topic had quieted down for some years. For now, growing GMO plants is expressly forbidden in the EU. The bloc has adopted a cautious approach and rightfully so because we cannot yet tell what their overall effect on nature and the human body is. However, we cannot remain on an island forever; that much is clear. Furthermore, in one form or another, we are not untouched by GMO, no matter the legislative safeguards. If you order a beef steak in a restaurant, the meat is likely imported from Argentina or Brazil where the animal was probably fed GMO feedstock.

As for Bulgaria, the two modern laboratories built over the past few years to monitor for GMO traces in various products were supposed to expose violations. As we know, GMO content of under 0.9% does not have to be reflected on the label. However, every producer knows that such information on the label will turn off clients. Similarly to dual-quality products, the problem boils down to what the producer discloses. Those two high-tech laboratories were supposed to be the answer, but we are not hearing much about their work.

Does your organisation have a stance on waste of paper? The leaflets in our post boxes alone are enough to convince us that it is of humongous proportions. What is the EU doing on this matter?

Paper, plastic and nylon truly generate a huge amount of waste. Europe's policy is to gradually eliminate landfills and recycle everything. If we manage to recycle all the paper we use, then there is nothing to be afraid of. But we are still at the beginning of the road. Perhaps we will meet our targets by 2050. It is not that easy, though. Just consider our mindset - we go in the mountain to enjoy nature and leave all sorts of litter behind us. It is time for such behaviour to be shamed. The campaigns to clear beaches, forests, etc., once a year are commendable, but is it not better for us to teach those who pollute to stop doing it?

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Bogomil Nikolov has been since 1999 the executive director of the Bulgarian National Association Active Consumers. He holds master's degrees in political science and business management from Sofia University “St Kliment Ohridski” and Erasmus University Rotterdam, respectively. He also has a PhD in economics from the University of National and World Economy in Sofia. He is a member of consultative bodies and committees such as the National Consumer Protection Council with the Ministry of the Economy, the Economic and Social Council, the European Consumer Consultative Group (ECCG) and the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC).

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