Bev­er­age Brands

When They Shrink Re­spon­si­bil­ity

Consumer Voice - - Front Page -

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.

The Fact

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.

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