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Vote with your dollar

Published:Sunday | March 21, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Avia Collinder, Business Reporter

Jamaicans have been noticing that several of the grocery items they buy no longer look and taste the same, and several persons have taken their complaints of misleading packaging and falling quality standards to the Fair Trading Commission (FTC).

The FTC, as competition watchdog, can and does force food manufacturers to correct misleading representations of products where these are proved. But when the grouse is simply a matter of how the product 'tastes', then it is up to the consumer to make the call whether or not to buy.

The FTC said it has been getting complaints alleging misleading representation of ingredients of certain food products.

In some instances, it said, the allegations were unfounded.

In others, due to the absence of industry standards, regarding definitions or classifications of certain foods and or ingredients, the allegations could not be proved.

One of the most recent complaints made against several bakeries related to bread labelled as 'whole wheat', the FTC said.

Not all were found to have merit, but in some cases where packaging was labelled 'whole wheat', a careful look at the fine print revealed that the major ingredients ranged from baking and enriched flour, to white flour.

The competition watchdog has raised its own concerns about the possible health risks of such a practice.

"The Fair Trading Commission was concerned that this misleading practice could pose a major health risk to some members of the public such as diabetics, who would assume that the labelling was accurate," said FTC executive director, David Miller.

The agency issued an advisory alerting the public, and its subsequent investigation resulted in bakeries repackaging their goods to avoid misleading the public, Miller said.

"However, inrespect of the reductionor watering down of ingredients," he said, "this would constitute a breach of the Fair Competition Act only in a situation when a representation is made regarding the product and it is proved to be false or misleading." For instance, the FTC said, the packaging on a particular product might indicate that it contains a specific amount or type of ingredient when in fact it does not.

The Bureau of Standards is best equipped to conduct such verification tests.

But the FTC points out that it is not an offence to sell a product of poor quality. The breach occurs where the supplier labels the product as having properties or ingredients that it does not.

"Subject to standards created by legislation and to certain health and safety requirements, an enterprise has the freedom and right to create its own standards of taste and/or unique blend of ingredients, and to adjust these in accordance with the demands of the market provided that in so doing, it does not mislead the public in a material respect," said Miller.

Concerns about quality

Where no effort is made to mislead, but consumers have concerns about quality, it is up to them to 'vote' with their dollar by switching to other brands, or doing without the product.

"Competition in a market ultimately provides consumers with a variety of prices and product choices," said Miller.

"A producer of condensed milk, for instance, who does not cater to the tastes of the majority of consumers, may find that purchasers might switch to another product or opt not to buy that product."

That is how competitive markets tend to operate, Miller said.