The verdict is out

Consumer rights receive a fizzy fillip

Published: Friday 31 December 2004

-- after a two-month wait, the verdict is out. Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and other soft drink manufacturers will now have to display on their labels the ingredients, including pesticide residue content, present in their products. In the first week of October, 2004 the Rajasthan High Court (hc) had delivered the order "in public interest". The soft drink companies first challenged the order in the hc itself, where their plea was immediately rejected. It was only a matter of time before they approached the Supreme Court, which they did, in the first week of December, 2004. Like the hc , the apex court was not willing to listen to any of their arguments. Nothing doing, the court ruled: disclose, because it is the right of consumers to know what the product they pay for contains.

Lawyers for the soft drink companies argued that they are not yet clear how the order would be implemented. They argued that the language of the label might be so formulated as to read that the product contains pesticide residues "within the prescribed norms". This phrase is a huge oversight: as of now, there are no prescribed norms for their products. It is ironic that these very companies, who are now hiding behind "prescribed norms", had been fighting tooth and nail against setting up of standards for their products. But could it be that, now, they are beginning to fathom it makes perfect sense to have mandatory standards for their products?

The hc order is not just about displaying pesticide content on labels. It is about empowering consumers. In the absence of regulatory norms, the companies can easily side-step scrutiny and trumpet the rhetoric of their products being 'world class'. Even if a consumer finds a product to be contaminated, s/he cannot do a thing, for the company making it cannot be held liable. With clear information on the label about what the product contains, the consumer can at least make an informed choice. And when the consumer gets to know they have been sold a product that is not up to the mark -- as the label might claim -- s/he can hold the company responsible for selling a sub-standard product. This right to information is what makes the hc order special. Because it is about time that consumer is not taken for granted and can choose products of the best quality. Not whatever companies wish to force down her uninformed throat.

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