The European Commission (EC) has sent a letter of formal notice to Bulgaria to make the country’s government reverse its guidance to supermarket groups there to prioritise local food products during the coronavirus crisis.

The EC said the guidance amounted to “discriminatory measures”.

The letter, a first stage of an infringement procedure against Bulgaria – a European Union member state – is intended to stop what is in effect market protectionism and ensure that a free market for goods from other EU member countries remains open.

The Bulgarian government order, issued on 13 April, was meant to reduce the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic on food producers in the country by requiring retailers to prioritise sale space for domestic food products such as milk, fish, meat, eggs, honey, fruit and vegetables.

The government said grocers should purchase 90% of milk and dairy products from domestic producers.

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But in a letter of formal notice seen by just-food, the EC has asked Bulgaria “to remove discriminatory measures obliging retailers to favour domestic food products”.

It said: “Due to the extraordinary circumstances due to the coronavirus sanitary situation and the weakening of EU economies, it is an imperative to preserve the free movement of goods and the freedom of establishment.”

The letter added: “Such obligations restrict the free movement of goods, enshrined in Article 34 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU (TFEU), as it creates more advantageous and competitive marketing conditions for domestic food products, discriminating against similar imported products.”

Bulgaria has one month to respond to the letter. If its reply is unsatisfactory, the EC could escalate the matter with a reasoned opinion, the second stage of the infringement process.