Locally packed products lack proper labeling: OCP

Locally packed products lack proper labeling: OCP

Lack of proper monitoring and awareness, or simply sheer negligence. Whatever the reason could be, locally packaged food items without labels are still widely available in the local market, despite clear instructions from the government that all packaged food items should carry labels with complete information related to the ingredients and shelf-life of the product.

This is according to one of the findings of the Office of Consumer Protection’s Report on rapid market appraisal for verification of unfair trade practices.

This means local food items sold in most ‘convenience’ stores like pulses, sugar, rice, beans, dry fruits, and junk foods like potato chips, veg-Juma, and pickles, among others in packages of various sizes lack any such relevant information.

However, the Competition and Consumer Affairs Authority (CCAA) and the Bhutan Standard Bureau (BSB) checked if the actual net weights of various brands/ types of rice and other essential consumables such as sugar, flour (atta and maida), pulses (dal) and edible oil, are as labeled on the package.

Additionally, the Team also inspected the accuracy of the weighing and measuring equipment. As per Bhutan Standards Act, 2010, the National Metrology Laboratory (NML) maintains standregularlyble to international standards which are calibrated on a regular basis.

A total of 32 wholesalers and retailers were covered. Three samples of each item were randomly selected and weighed using standard weighing equipment. However, since the products are packaged, the weight recorded is inclusive of the weight of the package and not the real net weight, though the weight of the package would be negligible.

Furthermore, edible oil is sold in volume but only weights were measured, since volume measurement would necessitate opening the packaging, which then cannot be sold. Open source ‘Edible Cooking Oils Volume vs Weight Conversion’ weight to volume conversion application was used, which will be fairly reliable.

Pre-packaged products from reputable brands such as Nestle, Britannia, and Amul were not included in this study, since their products are not re-packed specifically for Bhutanese markets per se and can be safely assumed to be reliably accurate.

According to the report, there were no major weight discrepancies in any of the major essential commodities and whatever little difference occurred mostly within the permissible limits.

In addition, the report states that in the absence of heavy-duty weighing machines in the majority of the retail outlets, consumers are deprived of their right to verify the weights of heavy packages such as rice at the time of purchase.

“A few outlets were found using weighing machines that were not calibrated or the validity of the calibration had expired. Some locally packaged products lacked proper labeling,” the report states.

However, the team did not come across any ‘price gouging’ in the markets. Prices of all goods were reasonable – well within prevailing market prices. It states that during normal economic situations wherein supply is not affected, prices remain reasonable.

“Price gouging normally occurs in extreme conditions wherein the supply chain is severely disrupted or when there is a state of monopoly or oligopoly in the market.”

In the absence of regulatory requirements on measurement systems in the country, manufacturers, wholesalers, and even retailers resort to using varying units and there is a lack of consistency of quantity across all vendors.

The report also states that there could be other reasons behind that, but one appears to be to influence consumers’ choices by making their products appear cheaper (lower costs achieved by reducing net weight by a small margin) when compared to products of other brands/ wholesalers.

Meanwhile, Proactive market surveillance and enforcement of the extant rules and regulations are key to ensuring that businesses do not indulge in unfair practices and that consumers’ welfare is safeguarded.

According to OCP, businesses are warned or penalized based on the nature of violations and the frequency of violations. Education of consumers about their rights as consumers, what to look out for when buying or entering into a business deal, or how to complain if they feel cheated are continuously carried out, using various mediums including social media.

“Businesses are also educated on their obligations and duties as per the CPA, 2012.” The availability of the same product in varying net weights can be perplexing for consumers though the practice is not against any extant laws.

According to the report, the BSB and CCAA may need to further discuss the pros and cons of such a practice and if any interventions should be made for the benefit of consumers. Too many regulations can have negative implications on business innovation and profitability without actually bringing any positive impacts on consumer welfare.

The availability of weighing facilities for large packages at retail outlets would boost consumer confidence. “The BSB and CCAA may need to discuss the practicalities of making this mandatory viz-a-viz, the costs for the retailer, and the space that such a weighing scale may occupy.”

The report also states that the CCAA must continue to collect and disseminate market prices of essential commodities for the benefit of the public. This database enables analysis of price movements and comparison, particularly during supply disruptions when unreasonable price hikes occur.

Meanwhile, the report is currently done every quarter covering only six Dzongkhags for want of more resources including financial and human resources, the ambition is to provide information from all the important markets in the country monthly.

Nidup Lhamo from Thimphu