Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
CONSUMER : October 31, 1999
Product safety: a long way to go
The author is Trustee, CONCERT, The Catalyst Trust; Founder Chairman, FEDCOT; and Member, Central Consumer Protection Council, Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Government of India.
Cockroaches in soft drink bottles; Bacteria in packaged butter and cheese spreads; Food poisoning in mid-day meal scheme centres; Death due to illicit liquor; signal failure causing the death of hundreds in railway accidents. We read many of these news items in the press. We go through moments of anguish and anger. We feel exasperated. But life goes on. We forget these incidents as quickly as we read about them.
We buy products which cut our fingers because of sharp edges. Toys often have sharp edges which hurt children. They are often packed in material which can choke children. Products manufactured from wood using nails and screws for joints are badly finished, so much so, that the nails and screws leave projecting pieces which draw blood from the users when their hand or fingers brush against them. This is particularly so in toys. We seem to accept these defects as facts of everyday life. If industrialisation is progress towards civilisation, our consumers must also be prepared to demand excellent quality products which will ensure safety to the user.
A few years ago a man bought pakoras packed in a paper bag and stapled. By mistake he swallowed the staple along with the pakoras. A short while later he was bleeding profusely and had to be given a blood transfusion. Luckily, he survived. The point here is the vendor, a small hole-in-the-wall type of shop does not even know that it is dangerous to use staples on food packets. He cannot be blamed as he does not know what can happen if the staple is swallowed. He would perhaps expect the buyer to remove the staple.
In India, where the most easily disposable commodity is human life, the loss of which has more or less deadened our reactions, almost any unsafe product is acceptable, no one protests. Just because India is such a huge market of almost every product manufactured on the face of earth, should we allow manufacturers to get away with producing and selling unsafe products? Recognising philosophy laced with cynicism, the common man's attitude is backed by the bureaucracy and politicians, and we have learnt to accept death caused by the use of unsafe products, as normal. But that should not be. While we may have such an attitude we as a people have also valued human life, nurtured it and extolled it. As we enter the next millennium we should strive hard to make sure that only safe products are produced and sold to the consumer and not accept injuries and death due to an unsafe product as a fact of life and silently forgive the producers.
The Bureau of Indian Standards has on its list the largest number of standards any country can have, but excepting for a few, most of them remain merely as standards. They are not to be followed compulsorily. When the question of including larger number of consumer products under the mandatory standards was discussed, the question arises as to who will enforce them. BIS does not have the infrastructure to handle enforcement. Our normal enforcing authorities have reached an abysmal state of corruption that it is no longer possible to expect them to enforce anything. Of course, there are some exceptions. Occasionally, we do come across some honest officials who wish to enforce the law. But the rules framed are so cumbersome, that they are practically impossible to follow.
Let me give a recent example. I am engaged through my organisation CONCERT, in finding ways to identify adulteration of petroleum products through a simple foolproof method. The present system of identification is such that a forensic laboratory takes anywhere from three months to one year to check the sample brought by the enforcing authority concerned. Even if the forensic laboratory finds that the product has been adulterated, by the time the case is taken to court, the law provides an escape route for the offender to be acquitted as delay in getting results can cause a case to be dismissed. Therefore, enforcement must be quick, severe and should send the offender reeling.
Again, if one were to consider the safety aspect of unprocessed and processed food items, it is practically impossible to get the offender convicted; if he is convicted the fine and the punishment are so small that it only encourages him more. The agricultural marketing (Agmark) which sets standards for using Agmark on the labels of unprocessed and processed food articles, does not have enough power by itself to bring an offender to book.
If we take the consumer durable products into account, we hardly find any concern for safety by the manufacturer. Safety does not necessarily mean safety against death alone but safety against injuries as well. We have heard of cases where children locked inside automatically closing refrigerators die of suffocation as they are unable to open the door. Only recently are efforts being made to manufacture child proof refrigerators and deep freezers.
A child locking itself inside a bathroom and unable to get out is very common. But the latches and locks manufactured do not provide safety from such accidents. Medicines are packed in bottles and plastic containers which can be easily opened by children. Poisonous or dangerous medicines are consumed with anticipated disastrous results. Child proof packaging has yet to come to India. The manufacturers of these drugs are known to be very careful in their home countries where strict enforcement is carried out. Heavy fines and jail sentences await them if they fail. In other words these companies have the technical know-how to produce child proof packaging but do not think of bringing it to our country. Is it because our laws are inadequate or that they lack the power enforce them effectively, or is it because generally our enforcement is near zero and, therefore, they need not worry. If such were the thinking of the manufacturers should they not think about accidental poisoning, illness and perhaps even death of children?
One of the reasons for such callousness on the part of manufacturers and producers is perhaps the absence of information about such accidents and death. Our media too seems to enjoy the proximity to politicians rather than real life situations affecting the common man. Should not the media go to hospitals, private nursing homes, mortuaries, and find out the cause of death, investigate the causes till they arrive at the truth?
Readers Digest once carried an article about a family facing slow death as a result of lead poisoning. Everything the family consumed was tested but still they could not put their finger on the cause. An investigation revealed that this family was drinking juice out of a porcelain jug. The jug was glazed with lead oxide. Unfortunately, the glazing was defective, due to the bad baking of the jug. Slowly the lead oxide from the glazing material was leaching into the liquids leading to slow and steady lead poisoning. Have we come across any such investigation in our country, and if so has such investigation been given sufficient prominence through the media?
I am listing below the tremendous amount of care and concern the Consumer Product Safety Commission of the U.S. shows in its work. If you look at the list below and the causes for withdrawal of products, fines and jail sentence for the perpetrators of misdeeds on matters which will be considered insignificant in this country, you will realise how far we have to go in consumer product safety. A few consumer activists have initiated action but the end seems to be paved with uncertainties and obstacles.
From the table you will see that CPSC orders withdrawal of products which are as small as a baby suit and as large as a farm tractor.
Recently, I had to deal with a case where a beverage manufacturer had supplied or was negligent in not noticing the supply of their product where some foreign matter was found in their bottled drink. The manufacturer disclaimed responsibility even though the brand is what the consumer favours and buys. Such negligence and irresponsible behaviour is unacceptable. The customer cannot be expected to know the difference between the original product and a spurious product.
One important and urgently needed regulation relates to consumer product safety. A Consumer Product Safety Commission of India with absolute power to order withdrawal of unsafe products, suspension and prohibition of unsafe products must be brought into existence as quickly as possible. I would say such an authority was needed yesterday in this country.
It is also necessary to define what is unsafe. To my mind any product which causes injury, which can be a potentially fatal while using, which can cause physical and mental discomfort is unsafe. The commission should also be empowered to award adequate compensation which by its sheer quantum, will force manufacturers to be careful.
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