The Eastern European Nutella Crisis

Are they getting deliberately subpar spread?

Photo: Wikimedia user donald

Sometimes it’s hard to tell what makes a German mad, because Germans always seem mad. But there’s a marked difference between Resting Deutsch Face—the Teuton’s natural state, wherein arguing about soccer and pointing out other people’s insignificant grammatical errors does not actually mean that one is böse (BOOO-suh), geärgert (guh-AEEER-gurt), or sauer (ZOW-ur)—and actual Wut (VOOT, or “rage.” Fun fact, the German word for “rabies” is Tollwut, TOLE-voot, meaning “crazy rage.”) Yes, all right, the Germans have a lot of words for being pissed off, but I promise you that usually they’re not. Unless, that is, they discover that you’re fucking with Nutella.

Granted, the chocolate hazelnut spread, which is dubious-looking (if you’ve ever changed a diaper) but delicious, isn’t a German product—in fact, it alights on the Früstückstisch (FRUU-stuuks-TISH, or “breakfast table”) of every German in the cosmos directly from Italian company Ferrero, purveyor of those known death traps, Kinder Surprise eggs. And guess what? According to this incredulous article in Die Zeit (titled “The Nutella Crisis”), Ferrero might be using deliberately shittier ingredients in the jars that are bound for supermarkets in Slovakia, Czechia (it’s called that now!), Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Romania and Lithuania—offering, essentially, a second, worse class of groceries to an entire bloc of EU citizens, treating them, as it were, like the “garbage can of Europe.”

Because it’s not just Nutella. It’s soup mixes that have more artificial additives and less actual soup; it’s sodas sweetened with syrup instead of cane sugar; it’s sausages that are all filler and no meat. It is, according to Hungarian politician  János Lázár, “one of the biggest scandals of the recent past.” It might, as Zeit writer Nadine Oberhuber puts it, finally be the proverbial condiment jar that breaks the EU’s back.

Yes, Eastern Europe is pissed. But so, weirdly enough, are the Germans (well, at least some Germans), whose love of high-quality consumer products is so strong that it is at least temporarily winning out over their snobbery against Eastern Europe, which I’ll get to in a sec. This is good (not the snobbery, the outrage), since Germans control a lot of the EU’s purse strings, and the aforementioned bloc of non-garbage nations has officially accused several large processed food brands of deliberately adulterating recipes to use cheaper goods—and now, apparently, the EU is going to be out half a million Euros to investigate those accusations. (Here’s a good rundown of the controversy in English, although the German is, well, sterner.)

This is a charge that may be hard to prove—I mean, basically they’ll have to uncover memos that specifically say Let’s give the shitty gravel Nutella to those schmucks in the East. Because one man’s garbage Brotaufstrich (BROTE-owfs-trick, or “thing you spread on bread”) is another’s deliciousness—just ask the Germans and Austrians who eat Hackpeter (HOCK-pay-tur), a breakfast spread of minced raw meat.

Plus, as anyone who has ever allowed an American Fanta to pass their lips will know, companies offer different recipes to suit the (garbage) tastes of different populations all the time. This explains, for example, why Austria’s most important export, Manner Schnitten wafer cookies, are delicious enough in their native Vienna that one (ME!) could live off them for a week, but here in the US are so god-awfully sweet that one bite requires two years of dialysis. Coca-Cola, Haribo and other companies are famous for using different recipes to market to different tastes. In fact, according to the Zeit, just Nutella has dozens of variations in Fancy Europe alone:

Everyone knows that Nutella in Northern Europe is has a solider consistency and a matte finish, while down in the Mediterranean it’s sweeter, because in the South that’s how they prefer it. It’s also creamier there, because otherwise in France, Italy or Spain it would tear up the white bread.

So OK, let’s grant for a second that Poland does, indeed, live in the darkest Nutella timeline. Is this truly malicious, she asks disingenuously? After all, Tomaso Duso, a food expert at the German Institute for Economic Research reminds us: “Products are not automatically worse just because companies use cheaper ingredients.” Yes, Herr Duso, that is why I regularly dump high-fructose corn syrup into my coffee by the bucket, you’ve got it all figured out.

But yes, OK, I’ll grant some Teufels advocacy: What’s to say that market research HASN’T proven that Czechs, for hypothetical example, simply ENJOY bread spread that’s made with axle grease and radioactive gravel? I mean, they eat big slabs of fried cheese on bread on purpose, and spell “pie” paj, so how refined could their tastebuds be, amirite? See, that’s exactly the bullshit Lebensmittelrassismus, or “grocery racism,” that the Eastern European countries are pissed about. (Also, smažený sýr, or SMAH-zhun-ee SEER, is delicious.)

What’s important to remember (or learn for the first time), is that the Western racism against Osteuropa is a near-eternal constant that long predates the Soviet Union (or, for that matter, Brexit). For centuries, for example, the European Jewish community divided itself into an upper class of mostly German-speaking Jewish business owners, and a marginalized lower class of Ostjuden, or Eastern Jews, who worked in factories or as junk dealers. This is why well-to-do Jewish families in early 20th-Century Prague—such as, oh here’s a surprise, the Kafkas—made sure to educate their children in German, so as to cement that their status in the bourgeoisie. (This worked great after the Czechoslovak Independence in 1918, by the way. Also, don’t get me started on Czechs’ superiority complex about Slovaks.)

The voices of German ethnonationalism in recent years have shouted loudest about the Islamic world, and today, refugees and immigrants from Muslim countries do bear the brunt of German jingoism (although, lest we need to remind ourselves, at least 87 percent of Germans are not openly jingoistic). But it bears remembering that Eastern Europeans have been kicked around by Germans and the rest of the West since long before there was a unified Germany, and this grocery scandal is just the latest event in a long and sordid history. Who knows, though? With the Zeit’s clear disapproval of Nutella (and packaged soup) racism, perhaps that won’t always be the case.