Saturday, January 4, 2014


Food industry world over might have been emboldened by the relatively inefficient law enforcement mechanisms put in place in most countries which leaves the citizen clueless regarding what he is buying or eating! It is true that front of the pack labeling rules followed in many countries give the consumer some elbow room to pick and choose what he wants though the veracity of information provided is suspect in many cases. In countries like India where most traders follow their own rule that once the customer buys some thing and takes them home, no complaint will be entertained regarding the quality of the products bought. Consumer has no way to prove that a particular product was purchased from a particular shop as most traders do not give authentic receipt to support any claim against the sellers. 

The retail market in the US is a shining example of trust between the consumer and the supermarket as there are special "returns" counters in most places to take back goods already sold if the quality is not satisfactory or the customer is not satisfied. Probably the retail marketing system there may be providing adequate cushion or margins to meet the financial loss due to returns received every day. Still it is a commendable system that should be considered as most consumer friendly. There are well laid down guidelines that stipulate the period within which the product must be returned and other logistical conditions. 

In a country like India such a system may never be implemented because of the limited role of organized retailing which is estimated at about 10% of the total market. imagine the chaos that is prevalent here when more than 7 million retail shops owned and operated by families or single entrepreneurs have been working for ages catering to different localities and most of them have earned the confidence of customers by their trust worthy service. The street corner trader even takes back defective goods and returns the money so that he continues to enjoy the confidence of his customers. What he does with the returned goods is any body's guess! What is amazing is that appearance of multinational retailing giants has not made any dent on this unorganized business sector so far and if economic analysts are to be believed none of the organized sector players are any where near the break even point still. 

Food adulteration is considered rampant in China, India and many emerging economies where wheels of justice move agonizingly slow in booking the culprits, most of whom get away with barely a rap on their knuckles! Of course China has an authoritarian regime which hands out severe punishment summarily but there also food adulteration is the rule rather than an exception, probably supported, albeit secretly by some of the powerful players in the ruling group. India has a unique food safety administering regime which is practically toothless with no machinery to enforce its own regulations! Most of the regional governments do not seem to have high priority for food quality and safety and it is an irony that the federal food safety agency depends on their machinery to implement the national laws! What can the citizen expect from such a situation! An average Indian can only pray that the food he buys is edible and free from unhealthy adulterants! 

It is against such a background one has to to appreciate the bold program being taken up by a tiny city like Dubai which is experimenting with a 'Smart City' initiative to protect its citizens from those indulging in the dangerous game of making and selling non-standard and unsafe foods. The program is expected to provide better connectivity between the law administrators and the citizens in identifying food culprits where ever they are operating within the municipality. As per the newly developed GIS based smartphone application, any consumer can report violation of food quality and safety norms to the authorities on the spot as soon as it is detected. When this system is fully implemented it is expected to be a boon as they will be able to help the authorities in real-time through their mobile phones by identifying the exact market location on an interactive map. The authorities further expect that the citizens can share their experience when shopping for food items and with provisions for capturing photo images and sending the same the enforcement agency can book those selling expired or rotten food items. Such complaints get registered automatically into the authority's case management system. Based on such real time information authorities can dispatch suitable inspection forces quickly to take punitive action.

It will be interesting to watch the experience of Dubai municipality in its new endeavor and if successful can be a model to other urban areas around the world. Though the population in India with smart phone facility may not be much, even a few enlightened citizens with interest to protect the nation from the criminal activities of food fraudsters may act as an effective deterrent in the market place.  


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