Food Fight!

Inside the Scary World of Polish Food Contamination and its Aftermath

By Samantha Senini

“I don’t eat this sh*t of yours,” said Andrej Babis curtly said last year after being offered a sample of Polish sausage by Michaela Jilkova, host of the Czech television program, Mate slovo, or “You Have The Floor.”

Babis was then a mere multi millionaire who founded Agrofert, the largest Czech and Slovak agriculture and food group. Now he is also Finance Minister and head of the ANO political party, a junior partner in the Czech government.

Photo courtesy of Dawn.com

Polish imports, including meat, have come under greater scrutiny over the past 2 years. Photo courtesy of Dawn.com

The politician’s ill-mannered response took place in the midst of an ongoing Czech-Polish food war that began in 2012 when road salt was discovered in Polish food exports. In September 2012, Polish Health authorities withdrew more than 104,000 pounds of products, mainly meats, breads and pickles, preserved in salt that may have been subject to possible contamination.

Most countries that import Polish foods, including Poland’s top customer, Germany, conducted tests on the products that were on their market shelves, and issued warnings for precaution. However, the Czech Republic, with 16 percent of its food coming from Poland, also implemented a temporary ban on all Polish salt imports.

The ban was lifted months later, but ever since then Czech public opinion toward Polish food has become as foul as the tainted meat. An inquiry published in 2013 by the E15 Initiative, a branch of the International Center for Trade and Sustainable development, found that 74 percent of Czechs claimed they did not buy Polish food. After this development, those in the Polish food industry became anxious about the future for their exports to the Czech Republic, their third largest customers.

Karel Pus, a regular shopper at Czech supermarkets including Bila and Lidl said.

“I heard about the salt in the Polish food. No, I do not buy it. The food is dirty.”

Tainted Sauerkraut

Indeed, beyond the salt scandal other “dirty” discoveries have been found in the Polish food industry over the past two years. In April 2012, Polish sauerkraut and pickles were recalled from the shelves of  the MAKRO Cash & Carry Czech Republic due to contamination with formic acid, a compound typically used for livestock feed and leather production. Next, in January 2013, Poland notified the Czech Republic of a possible presence of rat poison in the powdered milk used in cookie production by the company Magnolia. Kaufland supermarket, one of the recipients of the potentially corrupted shipment, withdrew 722 packages of cookie wafer rolls from stores and 2,070 packages from storage.

A few months later in July, frozen chicken cutlets shipped from Poland’s ALMA company were withdrawn from the market once the Czech Republic’s State Veterinary Administration discovered traces of antibiotics in the poultry. Laboratory tests by the Agriculture and Food Inspection Authority revealed that the Polish chicken contained two to three times the legal amount.

 

Anti-Polish Conspiracy?

Marek Minarczuk, a representative of the Embassy of Poland, says “Czech consumers tend to give priority to goods that have the lowest possible price. It is therefore quite obvious that such food often does not reach high standards,” reported Progetto.cz a Czech web magazine.

Still the Polish authorities have long smelled a conspiracy in the extensive media coverage of the Polish food problems, pointing the finger directly at Babis due to his political, commercial and media interests. In June 2013 Babis purchased several media outlets, including two of the country’s leading daily newspapers.

“If the Czech producers were able to provide food at low prices, it is they who would be the target for complaints and not the Poles,” the diplomat said.

Canned Sauerkraut Courtesy of chicagogeek

Some Czechs are suspicious of Polish food, including sauerkraut. Photo courtesy of chicagogeek

Yet it doesn’t appear that the plethora of Polish food scandals was enough to diminish the economy of the Polish food industry. In spite of holding the first place title for poor quality food in the Czech Republic, according to the International Center for Trade and Sustainable Development,in 2013 Czechs spent a record high of 23 billion koruna, or $837.2 million, on Polish food imports.

Yet the sales increase doesn’t necessarily mean Czechs are swallowing their bad taste for Polish food. In fact sales of meats, produce, and manufactured goods with clearly labeled Polish origins continue to decline according to the major Czech news sites. This may explain why Czechs claim they don’t buy Polish products, yet continue to spend record amounts each year.  They might not always be aware of what they are buying.

Tomas Baier, a native from the Czech Republic, said most shoppers do not pay attention to the labels. “Maybe negative opinions exist, but I don’t care if my food comes from Poland. People don’t really think about this when they shop.” Baier said.

Meanwhile, the food fight has been negatively affecting the brotherly relations between the two nations with accusations and counter accusations.  To diffuse tensions, Czech and Polish agriculture ministers Petr Bendl and Stanislav Kalemba, the two countries have come to an agreement that “future food quality controls in both Poland and the Czech Republic should become transparent and carried out in the same way,” reports Progetto.cz. In other words, the Poles felt strongly that the Czechs have been applying inconsistent and unfair standards regarding quality control.

The Czech Ministry of Agriculture has also promoted the idea of establishing three food quality categories by 2014 to be stamped clearly on each product.

Still it may take a long time before the notion of Polish food conveys anything positive in the Czech lands. Edita Djakoualnova a Czech student at Charles University says, “It’s kind of known that Polish food is gross but I think this refers to only the exports here to the Czech Republic because they have good food in Poland.”

Samantha Senini is in the NYU CAS Class of 2016. Her hometown is San Diego, California.

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Categories: Spring 2014 Issue Number 2

Author:The Prague Wandering

The Prague Wandering is an NYU based study abroad webzine- the only one of its kind. It focuses on issues in contemporary Czech culture and the city of Prague, exploring beyond the study abroad bubble.

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