Monday, November 17, 2014

Ever shrinking food packs-Is it ethical or unavoidable?

What is cheating? It is a fairly commonly used and understood English word having association with a negative image. Simplest meaning is "to mislead". What does that have to do with food industry which is highly regulated in almost all countries, overseen by qualified food experts with stiff deterrent punishments for violation. If so how can food industry mislead consumers? While it is understandable that industry may use half truthful information in advertisements, to deliberately mislead the consumers to attract them to their products, it may be difficult to do the same on mandated labels printed on each and every packet of food sold in the market. But in a few case such misleading information is put on the labels also inviting punitive retribution from food authorities, if detected or noticed or on receiving complaints. Scope for misleading the consumer, however, does exist in several areas like ingredient list, brand names, nutritional information, unsubstantiated health claims, suppression of facts etc for which there are remedies, at least on paper, if the enforcement authorities perform their responsibilities with no fear or favor.

Some times not declaring some thing which statutory rules do not mention can also be be misleading. For example the use of GMO ingredients is very common in a country like the US but unlike in other countries the food authorities are not insisting on declaration of the presence of these unnatural food substances. Since there are normal products containing natural ingredients safety of which are beyond any doubt, consumer has a right not to buy GMO tainted products for which label declaration has to be transparent. If a manufacturer does declare that his products contain GMO ingredients, does not it become tantamount to misleading the consumer?. Put it in another way, why not allow manufacturers of foods with out GMO ingredients to say so on the label which is not allowed in the US. That means "cheating" has the official sanction under the US Law! Strange indeed.

Packaging technology which is a vital support industry for the food manufacturing sector has done a yeomen service during the last two decades by providing high class, low cost, functional packing materials and machinery which has dramatically revolutionized the food product manufacturing and marketing in recent years. Multilayer packaging materials with high degree of impervious characteristics to gases, volatiles and moisture have spawned new packaging technologies like aseptic packing, vacuum packing, nitrogen infused packing etc which enabled the food industry to grow rapidly and make the consumer life more livable. Added to this controlled environment bulk packing as well as unit packing has been able to reduce food wastage significantly through out the world. If some food products can be preserved for more than 5 years, it is largely due to the excellent packaging technology available to day.

There is a wide spread perception among the consumers that packaging helps food industry more than the consumer in some ways. Whether it is really true, an impression is being created that food industry in conjunction with packaging industry makes sub standard products with questionable quality parameters in pursuit of increasing profits while reassuringly the product safety is not compromised out of apprehension about punitive punishments and personal damages to the consumer. Unlike in the past when most products were being packed in transparent  polyethylene or polypropylene pouches present day industry uses sophisticated multilayer materials containing non transparent paper or aluminum sheets making it difficult to have a visible feeling about the contents before buying. Ultimately consumers have to rely on brand reputation to guess about the product quality.

Recent practices by the food industry to take the help of packaging technology to redesign their pack size and shape are raising shackles all around, shaking the confidence on this industry. Advent of vending machines made it a necessity for adjusting the size, weight or volume of the product being vended keeping pace with inflation. It is part of the vending machine design that the coins to be inserted cannot be changed easily but the content size can be varied to adjust to the cost to be recovered. Modern machines do accept paper notes and smart cards but it is still difficult to change prices frequently to keep with rise in production cost. Taking a leaf out of the vending industry, main stream industry is also increasingly resorting to a practice of shrinking their pack size while maintaining the price line, to keep up with inflation. Many consumers feel this is a great deceit perpetuated on them by the industry deliberately making them look like fools!  Jury is out on the ethical aspects of this widely practiced "Houdini" act by food industry.

Dispassionate critics do see some justification in the industry practice because consumers are highly price sensitive and industry cannot raise prices frequently that may create a consumer backlash and eventually resistance to their products. It has been proved beyond doubt that consumer sensitivity is highest when the prices shoot up crossing certain thresholds while any thing less than this threshold is not generally noticed. For example if a product has an MRP of Rs 52 per pack, increasing it to Rs 60 or more may invite consumer attention while repricing at Rs 59 may not be noticed! In India there is another dimension to pricing because of acute shortage of low denomination coins and every trader/retailer faces this problem of returning the change if paid by cash. Of course payment by smart cards obviate such a situation but very insignificant number of consumers have smart card facility, the major clientele being poor and lower middle income population who always pay cash. The much touted competition is supposed to bring down prices at the retail level but this does not seem to be happening in India, except in electronic industry.

No comments: