In an attempt to diffuse an increasingly ill-tempered spat over the quality of Polish food imports to the Czech Republic, the two countries' agriculture ministers agreed during a meeting in Prague on May 6 to boost cooperation, improve the exchange of information between their respective food inspection agencies, and reduce media speculation.
In what Radio Praha calls the possible first step to defusing the row, Czech Agriculture Minister, Petr Bendl and his Polish counterpart Stanislaw Kalemba met to discuss moves to calm the situation. The food fight has been simmering since February 2012, when Polish products were contaminated by a criminal enterprise that saw road salt sold to bakeries and meat-processing plants.
While the Czechs banned imports of Polish salt and complained of a lack of information from Poland, Warsaw accused Prague of using the situation to stifle free trade due to a fear of the growing clout of large Polish food producers. Since then, several cases have arisen, and this year officials began sniping at one another across the border as Czech food inspectors reported Polish imports have been failing tests in increasing numbers.
"We would like to see much closer cooperation between our food inspection agencies," Bendl told reporters. "Given the volume of Polish foodstuffs on the Czech market, we are certain that mutual communication should intensify. I have proposed an exchange of Czech and Polish food inspectors in order to better understand the system in each country, and to ensure that poor quality food is detected as early as possible."
"We are sure this will improve relations, and will also help sales of quality food," he continued. "In the interest of both the consumers and the producers, we believe that today a new phase in communication between our countries should begin. We cannot really be happy with what the situation is like now."
Leaks on leeks
Kalemba meanwhile slammed the media - Czech presumably - for speculation over the results of food inspections on Polish produce. The two countries' media should only refer to those cases that have been proven beyond doubt, he says. "The media in both countries will be only informed of food inspection results after these results are ascertained by laboratory tests. The Polish and Czech sides have declared that this should clear doubts related to the quality and safety of food, namely in those cases that have been discussed in the media, and generally improve the situation on the market."
However, no details of how the cooperation should improve in this respect were released. While the issue will no doubt appear on the agenda during visits to Poland this month of both the Czech president and prime minister, plugging such low level leaks from officials is unlikely to be easy to achieve, especially with the atmosphere so full of petty recrimination.
An unnamed official told Gazeta Wyborcza in late March that Poland suspects the Slovak and Czech authorities of running a "black PR campaign" against Polish food. That accusation was made more formal on April 8, when the Polish Embassy in Prague complained in an official statement handed to the media that criticism of the quality of Polish food products in the Czech Republic is driven by protectionism.
Around the same time, data from the Czech State Agriculture and Food Inspectorate revealed that products of Polish origin accounted for 24.1% of food that failed to pass quality tests in 2012, while just 14.5% of the total was of domestic origin. The percentage of Polish products failing the test was the highest of all countries importing food to the country, the inspection remarked.
Polish food imports constituted 16% of the Czech market overall in 2012, a trade worth €870m. Polish officials though argue that Czech complaints about the quality of Polish foodstuffs are for more frequent than from other countries that receive far higher volumes of exports, such as Germany and the UK.
Wider cooperation is clearly needed. When Prague banned Polish salt imports in March 2012, followed by a range of food products after it complained that Warsaw was not openly sharing information on the detail of the producers affected. That accusation was at least somewhat supported circumstantially when Polish food inspectors pointed out in reply that road salt is not harmful for humans at low levels of consumption.
Six months later the boot was on the other foot, as Czech alcohol was banned across the region due to dozens of deaths resulting from fake spirits tainted with methanol. Although Prague halted exports to Poland and Slovakia itself, Warsaw and Bratislava maintained their own bans well after the Czechs implemented a new system to control quality, in a move analysts suggested could be motivated more by opportunist protectionism than public health concerns.
The latest high-profile instance was during the European horsemeat hullabaloo, with Poland furiously rejecting claims in the German press that it was a font of the unlabeled meat that cropped up across the continent. The Poles were clearly incensed when the Czech regulator announced that it had found horsemeat in beef burgers imported from Poland. Then, in early April, the analgesic drug phenylbutazone was found in horsemeat sold in northern Moravia. The Czech food inspection agency said the meat had been imported from Poland.
At the same time, minor cases have also been multiplying. In January, traces of rat poison were detected in powdered milk used in wafers and other sweets produced by the Polish firm Magnolia. In April, Czech food inspectors ordered crackers made of contaminated powdered eggs from Poland to be pulled off the market. Later the same month, Polish pickles and sauerkraut that were found to contain formic acid, banned under Czech food standards, were recalled.