When They Shrink Responsibility
Almost all of us have heard or read about foreign substances found in bottles of beverages. News stories about ants in a cola drink, fleas in the beer bottle, or some unidentified object in a juice can are not a rarity. However, how many times have you heard or read about big beverage brands being penalized for such misdoings? How many of you have heard of such companies pleading guilty in the court of law?
Dr Prem Lata, Consumer Awakening, Former Member, CDRF-Delhi
It is not that consumers are not complaining. Hundreds of cases are filed before the consumer forums across India against top beverage companies and most of these cases are related to foreign substances found in bottles. However, most of these pleas are rejected since consumers are not able to establish the truth on the basis of evidences. For example, how can you establish the fact that there were worms inside the bottle before opening if you have already opened the bottle? Also, you hardly ask for a bill for such small products like cola bottles, which makes it difficult to prove where the bottle was bought from.
On the other hand, instead of accepting the mistake and ensuring that such incidents will not happen in future, companies outwardly deny such allegations. Instead of beginning an investigation to find out the reason for such blunders, companies go into attacking mode alleging that the product in question is a fake or a replica of their product. Basically, they simply get away by saying it is not their product. And if the case seems to be grilling, they do an out-of-court settlement with the complainant – the latter mostly agrees as they fear losing their precious time against the battery of lawyers at the beck and call of these big brands.
However aware they may be that the fake beverages are being sold in the market in their brand
name, companies hardly launch any investigation, file formal complaints, or take any action to control the parallel trade of spurious beverages. In extreme cases the companies have even paid the compensation and penalties levied by consumer forums, but have never launched a drive against the ones that they believe are making fakes in their name. What does this imply? Do these beverage conglomerates do not care about their replicas or is it that they know that the fault is at their bottling plants, but do not want to accept the same?
These questions can only be answered if a thorough investigation is ordered and a team is sent to inspect the hygiene level at bottling plants whenever such complaints come before the consumer forums.
Cola in the Court – Nine Years of Battle
This is a case where the consumer had to wait for nine years to grill Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages before the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission.
In the summer of 2006, Purushottam Gour bought a bottle of Fanta from a general store in Indore. When he reached home, he found that there were insects inside the sealed bottle. Alarmed, Gour filed a formal complaint at the consumer forum. Coca-Cola was asked to present their stand and this is what it had to say before the forum: The seller is not their authorized dealer. The bottle is not manufactured by them. The product is spurious. Their bottling plant is of latest technology with
high standard of hygiene. Their bottles are sold after conducting a number of tests. The forum probably did not ask the right questions and dismissed Gour’s complaint. Gour did not accept the ruling and knocked at the State Commission’s doors. The State Commission accepted the complaint, heard arguments of both parties, overruled the district forum’s decision and penalized the company.
Coca-Cola did not agree with the State Commission’s decision and escalated the matter to National Commission. The commission decided to have expert opinion after thorough research and investigation of the matter.
The commission found that there were a number of differences between the bottle in dispute and the bottle of the same drink taken from the market. The major differences included: Difference in colour of the caps of bottle Printed logo on both the bottles had different
colour base Fluid in both the bottles had different look Text on bottle was of different type
Although the metal crimp cap was found intact, it could not be said whether the bottle had been opened and repacked with the new cap.
The above observations could establish the fact that two bottles were different, but could not establish that they were not packed at the same plant. Hence, it was left to Coca-Cola to defend and prove that the said bottle did not belong to them.
Coca-Cola could have sent the bottle to a certified laboratory, but it did not do so. The company also did not raise any objection after reading the report of the experts. They did not even answer the queries posed by the laboratory representative. The company even failed to appoint its own experts to examine the bottle in dispute.
The National Commission held Coca-Cola responsible and dismissed their revision petition.
The Worry Factors
1) Although Coca Cola could not defend itself in the above-discussed case, the possibility of it being right cannot be ruled out. It is a known fact that there are criminals out there faking the beverages and selling them out in dingy marketplaces. The worrisome factor here is that the brands do not seem bothered about such spurious drink makers and are rather fine with paying small damages at consumer forums.
2) Shouldn’t the company be educating its consumers about the things to look at to identify the original drink? Why aren’t they introducing holograms or something similar?
What You May Do
First thing first, do not shy away from filing a complaint even if you fear it will be dismissed. Note that consumer forums are meant for consumers’ empowerment and will not question your intent. Remember that in the absence of cogent evidence in its favour, the company will be presumed guilty.