Wrapped in deception?
Be it toothpaste or instant food, the packaging is attractive. But try reading the expiry date and sometimes you can hardly decipher it. GEETA PADMANABHAN discusses the issue of dubious dates.
MR. KRISHNAMURTY has picked up a loaf of a well-known brand of bread at a local shop but finds the space meant to carry the packing date empty. After squinting at it for a while, he takes it to the shopkeeper who locates it below the white box in a tiny black print. The search has taken them nearly 15 minutes.
Mrs. Rajan was prescribed tablets to prevent a miscarriage during her first pregnancy. She began taking them from a strip and later decided to buy a carton. She was horrified to read this warning on the leaflet in the box: ``Not to be taken beyond the first trimester.'' She had not seen this information on the first batch of pills at all!
It is anybody's guess how many people might miss reading these Lilliputian letters.
``The Packaged Commodity Rules 1977 is specific on the size and prominence of the declaration of information on the packaged article and this is constantly reviewed,'' says Mr. Bharath Jairaj of Citizen Consumer and Civic Action Group (CAG). For example, the brown dot to indicate non-vegetarian ingredients in foodstuff has to be 3mm in diameter and should appear close to the name of the product. How far is this being followed?
Extensive research in several department stores reveals the deception in the diminutive print. Most varieties of bread and bun do not carry the manufacturing date. Most brands of cottage cheese (paneer) do not have any expiry date on them. Tofu (soya paneer) just floats in a plastic sachet of water without any markings. Ready-made dosa batter of a particular brand has no `Best before' warning. And you would think that all perishable stuff should convey these facts clearly to the consumer.
Ask the shopkeeper, and the prompt response is, "It is a fast-moving item. We don't stock anything stale.'' For the dosa batter, the straight-faced rejoinder is ``We get fresh supplies every evening. The day's leftover is taken away.'' No doubt to come back as the next day's supply.
Several tea packets, locally packed fried items and some imported biscuit packs were silent on the safety of consumption. An imported container of dates with cashew filling is meant only for those who can read Arabic. And some manufacturers entertain the buyer by incorporating a treasure hunt for the relevant label. They print the information in colours that merge with the plastic, emboss it so you need to run your fingers over to read it or hide it under a decorative flap.
Check out the manufacturing date on a toothpaste tube. You have to dig it out of the crimped tail. Try reading the expiry date on battery cells. While numbers on the large and medium ones are visible under a lens, the script on the seat of the pencil cell is beyond even a powerful magnifying glass. Mrs. Sarathy, who actually uses a glass, wonders, ``Why can't this advice be printed on the body itself?"
``Beware of foreign foodstuff that has flooded the market,'' adds Mr. Jairaj. ``Legally they have to carry the details in English. In fact, they need to follow the norms of the country of their origin as well as those of India." "There are grey areas in packed green vegetables and fruits too," he tells us. "They have no freshness data on them. New products are exempted from display of expiry data and CAG is fighting this anomaly. Consumer groups have to face powerful lobbies (specially in the dairy products sector) to push for safety legislation. We had asked for the phrase `Use By' which got whittled down to `Best Before'. Manufacturers argue that some products can be used beyond the date specified."
What about the small print in the press ads? Unlike packaged goods, there is no well-defined law for font-size in media ads. The only stipulation is that it should be legible, which is open to interpretation. An official of a motor company admits: "When we advertised finance for our new luxury car, our ad proclaimed "Pay only Rs. 3000 per month in instalment. Of course the fine print said `per lakh of rupees'. The number of inquiries we get determines an advertisement. Once the customer calls up and asks for details we are bound to answer truthfully. In the bargain, we get a contact number and an address. This is normal business practice." May be. And it is highly likely that a `normal' customer will overlook the rider at the end of the half-page coloured ad. "What we need is a clear-cut law to cover printed ads," says Mr. V.Y. Yagnaraman of Consumer Association of India.
Have you noticed the tiny asterisk attached to the `Free' gift message in bold print? This mysterious mark will lead you to the bottom of the ad where patience will unravel announcements that the advertiser would rather you didn't know. Such as `Conditions apply' or `Available only for certain sizes' or `Till stocks last'.
One well-known furniture manufacturer declares 25 per cent off in big bold letters and quietly qualifies it in mini print with the words "On the recommended retail price. Taxes extra as applicable."
"In the case of computers and audio players, taxes could amount to thousands," points out lawyer Kiran Rao.
"This is a surreptitious way to entice the consumer," says consumer activist Mr. Desikan. "It takes advantage of the fact that the consumer has neither the time nor the inclination to read the fine print." Mr. Jairaj adds, "The words `conditions apply' do not bind me unless I'm told what the conditions are."
Mr. Nathan, Principal, Bala Vidya Mandir and author of the extremely useful workbook `Consumer Rights and Responsibilities' for children, agrees. "Instructions for use and contra indications on medicine packs are printed in small size. In ads, the microscopic print is meant to protect the trader rather than to inform the consumer of what is on offer."
The only help comes from the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASIC- E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org) that promotes some sort of voluntary self-regulation among manufacturers and advertisers. One could complain to the ASIC about any dishonest, misleading or indecent ad along with a copy or description. It now runs a 30-second confidence-building commercial on TV channels about its work.
But the bottom line in the print war is consumer awareness. "Ask a 100 questions. Investigate. Satisfy yourself that you choose the right brand from a reliable dealer. Above all, read the minute details carefully," is Mr. Desikan's counsel.
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