All food placed on the EU market has to comply with stringent legal requirements to safe-guard the well-being of citizens and inform them truthfully about the characteristics of the products they intend to buy. Moreover, the EU Directive on Unfair Commercial Practices (UCPD) shall prevent consumers from being misled into believing that a product is identical to the same product marketed in several other Member States while those products have a significantly different composition or characteristics.
Studies in some EU Member States carried out between 2016 and 2018 pointed towards differences in quality related characteristics (such as composition and sensory properties) of branded and private label food products. However, because of the different approaches used for collecting samples, testing and data interpretation, the data are not fully comparable. Most of the studies have compared branded and private label products taken from the domestic market to their equivalents purchased mostly in one neighbouring EU Member State.
Among the initiatives taken by the European Commission to address this problem, the Joint Research Centre (JRC) developed in 2018 a harmonised testing methodology for assessing quality related characteristics of food, aiming at improving food product comparative tests so that Member States can discuss this issue on a sound and shared scientific basis that is the same for all.
This methodology was used to collect information on the composition of a wide variety of branded and private label food products. The nutrition declaration, ingredient list and quantitative ingredient declaration as printed on the product labels and the front-of-pack appearance was used for categorising products according to their similarity.
All EU Member States were invited by the JRC to participate in an EU wide campaign to collect information regarding the composition of selected food products offered on their markets. Nineteen EU Member States submitted information provided on the product labels and the front-of-pack appearance of 113 branded and 15 private label products. In total, information for 1380 products formed the basis of the data comparison.
Products were grouped into nine categories using as criteria whether product composition and the front-of-pack were 'identical', similar' or 'different'. The appearance of the front-of-pack was visually examined by a panel of JRC assessors for similarity grading to reduce the effect of individual perceptions of differences in the graphical design of the front-of-pack. However, a certain element of subjectivity in the judgment cannot be excluded.
The level of detail given by the producers to describe ingredients and the way how individual elements for the nutrition declaration (content of energy, protein, fat, etc) are estimated, has an influence on the (dis)similarity of the information provided on the label of food products. Moreover, the translation of ingredient names from the different languages (used for the products in the various Member States) into English may also have an effect, although efforts were made by the JRC team to harmonise the terminology used to the extent possible.
The composition of 33 % of the evaluated products was identical but not all of them had an identical front-of-pack appearance; differences in composition but identical or similar front-of-pack were found for 9 % and 22 %, respectively, and 27 % had a different composition and also a different front-of-pack appearance. The rest of the products (9 %) had similar compositional characteristics.
Detailed information for each product type is given in the Annex of this report. Moreover, comments received from the food industry on the individual products are listed as well on each of the product sheets.
For those products where national variants of a branded product were differentiated, clusters were formed by grouping products together having the same composition. This clustering did not reveal any consistent pattern of product differentiation for particular geographical regions.
The findings described in this report relate to the observed differences in the composition, i.e. variations in the content of nutrients and/or ingredients, of the food products included in the survey. It has to be understood that such compositional differences cannot be translated into different levels of food quality. As one aspect of food quality is related to sensorial properties (e.g. taste, structure, appearance) of the concerned products, a subset of the products included in this study will undergo sensory testing by expert panels in the next months. This may clarify if a different composition of a given food product will have a noticeable impact on its sensory properties.
The results of this study relate to the sample of products which were included in the survey at the time of collecting them (November to December 2019). It needs to be stressed that it is inappropriate to conclude by inference that the findings are also valid for the whole population of branded and private label foods on the EU market.