Thursday, July 1, 2010


Consumer protection is upper most in the minds of policy makers and every rule
mandated is designed to prevent economic cheating of the buyers of products
offered by the food industry. Introduction of metric system of measurements was
also intended to make consumers comfortable with calculation and checking of the
prices. Foods are offered in different physical forms like solid, liquid and
gas. Solid foods used to be sold by volume, weight and counts while liquid form
is amenable to only volume or weight. The specific gravity of the product is
critical while calculating volume, with light foods giving less quantities in
terms of weight. Probably this might be the reason that many countries do not
allow selling any material by volume or count. In India food grains used to be
sold by volume measures and with conservation practically non-existent,
infested grains, hollow after the core is consumed by the insects, still were
traded based on volume. Similarly edible oils with specific gravity less than 1,
were being sold by volume and consumers were invariably under the impression
that they were getting 1 kg.when they choose a liter pack. Of course with
labeling regulations becoming more and more stringent, even in India practically
every thing is traded by weight, except probably milk, beverages and ice cream.

The subject of selling became a controversial issue recently in Europe where
shopkeepers in the European Union (EU) are proposed to be restrained from
selling eggs or fruit by the dozen under new food labeling regulations. Though
it is still under the draft stage of legislation with target date of
implementation being next year, there are apprehensions that sale of food items
in the EU replacing the simple measurement by numbers with a system based on
weight may have far reaching implications. The legislation, if approved, would
mean an end to packaging eggs or fruit by the dozen, bread rolls in a pack of
six or fish fingers in boxes of 12. and a possible ban on special promotional
packs such as those offering "eight chocolate bars for the price of six" and
similar schemes which account for a substantial extent of sales volume. Whether
the same rule will apply to loose vending without any packing is not clear.
Already in many super markets fruits are sold only by weight and hence the new
law may not affect them.

It is to be expected that the food industry will react to the new proposal with
some apprehension as"retailers would not be allowed to put "Six eggs" on the
front of the box and if it was a bag of rolls, it would have to say '500g'
instead of six rolls. Another sore point is that the new rules would not allow
both weight and quantity to be shown on the packaging as being permitted in some
countries. Some believe that the new regulation may confuse the buyers and it
will cost the industry heavily for changing packaging and weighing each box
resulting in higher food prices for these items. Egg marketing for ages has been
based on counts and it is a fact that consumers are used to the practice of
buying them by dozens making a choice based on the visual impression of the size
of the eggs. Once eggs or fruits are graded according to size as is being done
in some countries, selling by number would be more appropriate as each grade
specification specifies the size and other physical parameters. Similarly the
Cashew nut trade uses the size grading system to segregate nuts with different
sizes though selling is still based on weight. Probably permitting use of both
weight and number could be an amicable solution to the current controversy. .

Why this new brain wave now amongst the policy makers is a mystery as there does
not appear to be any logical reason for such a shift. With economic melt down
still a threat to the stability of many countries and consumer spending
shrinking day by day, the EU can do without another consumer backlash affecting
the food industry in its member countries. There is some substance in the
contention of the industry that the mass processing practices followed by them
to reduce handling and packing cost may not be amenable to the new system of
printing weight and price on each carton which may vary from carton to carton,
as being demanded by the authorities through the new regulation.


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