Thursday, March 3, 2011


Dishonest practices by some segments of industry and trade are well known and invariably many of the violators get away with barely a knuckle on their knees. Inadequate supervision due to limited monitoring infrastructure and constraints on personnel are exploited by the consumer products industry to mislead the consumers through wrong labels and unsubstantiated claims. Of course such instances are far and few in countries like USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and some developed countries though it is generally a "free for all" situation in most developing countries. Credit must go to watchful consumer protection organizations for bringing to surface such fraudulent cases and a recent report on this problem illustrates how such things take place in spite of extensive vigilance by the monitoring authorities.

In one of the incidences reported from the US, manufacturer of a major brand of soy milk surreptitiously downgraded its core product line from organic to conventional some time in the year 2009, dropping the organic food claims. What was objectionable in this change, concerned inaction to change its UPC (bar code) or product labeling, intentionally or otherwise and one can imagine the pecuniary benefit the manufacturer must have gained by such a devious practice. The hapless consumer, never expecting such unethical practices, continued to patronize the product believing that they are still organic. Even retailers were unaware of the changes for a considerable time till there were complaints by one of the consumer activist organizations.

Another instance of consumer cheating was reported with a cereal food manufacturer who, after launching a particular brand of organic cereal, changed the nature of the product, not conforming to organic food standards but without changing the UPC or the label profile. It makes a lot of difference to the consumers who are wedded to organic foods as they believe conventional foods from the processing industry are too risky to consume and are prepared to pay premium prices to lay their hands on organic labeled products. The most objectionable aspect of these cases is that when product is down graded the manufacturer did not bother to notify the change to the consumers or to the retailers which is considered unethical and improper. Added to this when such practices come to surface wide publicity that is generated can bring bad reputation to the integrity and reputation of organic food manufacturing sector in general.

These instances, though few in number, have prompted champions of organic foods to strive hard to bring about changes in the legal framework that is mandatory for the manufacturers to follow once they are registered with the concerned authorities. Present regulations that govern changes in the status of a product once it is down graded are ambiguous that enables some of the players to indulge in such dubious practices. Adequate deterrent provision is not there in the statute books to bring the violators to book. There must be a clear provision regarding the logistics of changing a certified brand of organic foods to conventional quality and mandatory re-registration must be insisted upon. Ultimately the buck stops at the consumer door and eternal vigilance is the price one has to pay to avoid being cheated. The bar code system and clear labeling requirements are intended for the consumer to exercise discretion in selecting the best product at least cost and consumers have to fully make use of the same for their own good.

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