Consumer activists stress need for system to lodge complaints easily, initiate action against violators

When it comes to packaged food, retail outlets now offer a wide choice. The freedom to choose has, however, not been accompanied by measures to curb adulterated, fake and sub-standard products. With the manufacturer-supplier-consumer chain getting more and more complex, spurious and expired food items are increasingly becoming a problem.

In the past three months, health officers of the Chennai Corporation have raided and destroyed over four tonnes of expired food items, including jams, milk products, cakes, biscuits, Basmati rice, chips, dosa batter and meat.

Corporation Commissioner Rajesh Lakhoni says, “Consumers who have a problem with a perishable item sold in a store can call or SMS 1913 to lodge a complaint. Even without complaints, our Food Inspectors and Sanitary Inspectors regularly pick up samples and conduct raids. So far, we have been concentrating on retail outlets. Now, we will be scaling up our operations and looking at the storage and manufacturing points.”

M. Thuyamurthy, an RTI activist, says there are godowns spread across north Chennai dedicated to manufacturing fake packaging material that are then filled with low quality food items. “Oil duplication is rampant in most places, but it is very difficult to prove because only samples taken by the Health Officer are valid,” he adds.

The distinguishing features that the consumer should look for in packaged food products are the ISI mark, Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) serial number, the company's name and address, the manufacturing and the ‘best before' dates.

Hepatologist K. Narayanaswamy says food made from poor quality ingredients damages the gastrointestinal tract. Reducing the cost of food by using sub-standard ingredients could cause mild to moderate irritation in the digestive tract, resulting in diarrhoea and vomiting.

P.Anbarasu, Deputy Director General, BIS, says that while the agency has prepared close to 22,000 standards, compliance is voluntary. “Only 1,000 food products are under certification (products with ISI mark) and 82 have mandatory certification. The existing regulatory mechanisms are pretty weak and even compliance with this limited set is not fully enforced.”

The agency also has a code of practice for food hygiene and food advertising. There are detailed guidelines on the nature of labelling of pre-packaged food but most of them are voluntary.

Consumer activists stress the need to put in place a system in which customers can easily lodge complaints and get a response.

S. Saroja, Co-ordinator of Citizen Consumer Civic Action Group, says most people are not aware of their rights as consumers. “When a person buys a small quantity of foodgrain from a shop, she is given a bill on a small piece of paper which will not stand as evidence in a court of law. People must opt for branded food products and ask for a bill with the shop's name on it,” she says.

As an example, she cites the case of a consumer who bought a bottle of aerated drink which had a foreign particle in it. The consumer sent two e-mails to the manufacturer but has not got a response. When he approached the King's Institute, the only government authorised testing centre, he was told to produce the bill and pay Rs.1,250 fee for testing the contents. According to Mr.Abarasu, once the Food Safety and Standards Act (2006) comes into force, adulteration and expired items sales can be tackled in a coordinated manner. “The government is in the process of appointing a Food Safety Commissioner. Once the Act is implemented, all food related establishments can operate only under a licence.”

The general secretary of the Tamizhaga Vanigar Sangangalin Kootamaipu, V.P.Mani, said that following the recent raids by various government agencies, the traders' body has issued directions to vendors asking them to keep goods meant for returning separately. “In case of branded biscuit packets, companies take returns only after a month. If we sell expired products to consumers, they will not come back to our shops. We do not support sale of expired or fake products.”

“The association has also asked vendors to stock just the right amount of goods that they can sell.”

What they say

K .Rajaraman, Commissioner, Civil Supplies and Consumer Protection Department

The labelling on the package of pre-processed foods makes a significant difference. I would advice consumers to buy only labelled food items. The physical condition of the product is also an indicator. If it is spoilt, the consumer can give a written complaint to the local health officer. In case of perishable food items that are usually sold without a receipt, consumers should try and take a bill whenever possible. It is difficult to take the vendor to court otherwise.

K.Narayanaswamy, Head, Hepatology Department, Government General Hospital

It is best to eat freshly cooked food, using fresh vegetables. Food cooked in the morning should be consumed by the afternoon. Poor quality ingredients could damage the stomach. Gastrointestinal immunity differs in each person and there is no evidence yet to say that taste enhancers can cause cancer. But preservatives could injure the mucosa of the stomach and the intestine. Food poisoning is commonly caused by low quality food and reheated food that is not cooked at home.

V.Rajkumar, Consumer

Many shops in the suburbs and those near bus terminuses and railway stations sell products with packaging similar to original brands. Even fonts and colours will be the same but the taste is different. People who are in a hurry will not have the time to check for details. Government must take steps to curb the sale of such products. Sometimes the dates on packets are smudged or are non-existent. There is no place where consumers can take expired foods and lodge a complaint.

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