Fifteenth March of every year has been recognized as the World Consumer Rights Day and consumer groups, consumer activists and organizations lobbying for the rights of the consumers commemorate this day of the year campaigning towards protecting the rights of consumers under a common theme. The Consumers’ International has declared this year’s theme as the Consumers’ right to healthy food; a very timely and highly relevant topic for the safety of the consumers. According to statistics poor diets contribute to more than 11 million deaths annually and is one of the main risk factors for death. Diet related diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes are rising faster in developing economies. Therefore it is high time that all relevant parties work together to identify and implement necessary changes to be introduced to the way people eat.
"Several measures such as import inspection, mandatory labelling, mandatory standards, product registration, product testing etc.has been introduced for food items. "
In Sri Lanka several regulations have been introduced by the Government in order to ensure food safety. Food Advisory Committee established under the Food Act is the main body established to take policy decisions related to food and this committee is represented by the relevant stakeholders such as Sri Lanka Standards Institute, Government Analyst Department, City Analyst, Medical Research Institute, Department of Customs, Chamber of Commerce, Consumer Affairs Authority etc. Several measures such as import inspection, mandatory labelling, mandatory standards, product registration, product testing etc.have been introduced for food items. However, there are complaints from consumers on the quality of food sold in the market. Further there are frequent media releases on marketing of unhealthy food to the consumers which are not suitable for human consumption. Therefore it is necessary to review the effectiveness of the regulatory measures, identify the drawbacks and introduce new strategies to ensure the quality of food marketed to the consumers.
Being the government regulatory authority established to protect consumers and promote healthy competition, the Consumer Affairs Authority is envisioned to perform several functions with regard to safeguarding the consumers such as consumer education and empowerment, conducting market raids and investigations, consumer redress, regulation of the prices of specified items and promotion of healthy competition.
"The business community is not sensitive enough to respect the rights of the consumers and their safety. Most of the business community is short term profit oriented and lack concern on a better customer service. The business community has poor respect towards consumer rights. "
With regard to consumer education and empowerment, the CAA conducts awareness sessions for target groups such as school children, university students, house wives, members of civil society organizations and the general public. These sessions are conducted on rights and responsibilities of consumers, how they can obtain the assistance of the Consumer Affairs Authority to be a rational consumer in the market etc. The CAA has identified housewives as one of the key target groups to make aware on consumer related matters since most of the household decisions are taken by them. The CAA conducts one day workshops for members of women’s organizations on useful topics such as “role of women in keeping the family healthier, how to utilize the household income effectively” etc. Through these workshops the CAA attempts to educate women on their consumer rights and responsibilities and tries to mobilize them into more empowered consumers who are capable of taking better decisions in the market.
The CAA promotes the establishment of consumer circles in the schools and consumer societies within the civil society, in order to promote the participation of consumer groups in consumer related issues. The CAA has introduced consumer study projects to the consumer circles in order to get the students active involvement. These projects are introduced at the workshops conducted for school children on the theme “Action on Consumer Rights.”
The CAA conducts market surveillance in order to protect consumers from hazardous products and unfair trade practices. During these market surveillances our officers have detected food items which were unfit for human consumption. Adulteration of food items (spices with textile dyes, coconut oil with industrial palm oil, white rice with dye, mixing of “sathakuppa” seeds with cummin seeds etc.), changing of the information in labels especially expiry date (cooking oil, canned fish, sausages, chocolates etc.), refilling used containers (bottled water), misleading trade practices (extracting certain % of essential oils from coriander seeds before sending them to the market) are some of the malpractices our officers were able to detect in the market. The offenders are prosecuted in the Magistrate courts and fines imposed, based on the provisions in the Act.
In addition to the market raids, the CAA collects samples of food items and tests them for quality parameters. These samples are collected from the market and sent to laboratories such as the Government Analyst, City Analyst, Medical Research Institute (MRI), Industrial Technology Institute (ITI) and Sri Lanka Standards Institute (SLSI) for obtaining analytical reports. Some examples of such testing are added sugar content of ready to drink beverages, salt content of snacks available in the market, fat content of fast food, testing of bottled water for chemical and micro-biological properties, testing of spices for adulterants, testing of vegetables for pesticide residues, testing of pulses for agro chemicals, testing of coconut oil for adulterants and Aflatoxin. Once the test reports are received, steps are taken to make the industry aware on necessary corrective action, if there is any quality related issue detected.
Experience shows that the monitoring mechanisms of the regulatory authorities are not sufficient to eliminate the malpractices perpetrated through the supply chain. The surveillance mechanism is not potent enough to cover up the entire country. Further the business community is not sensitive enough to respect the rights of the consumers and their safety. Most of the business community is short term profit oriented and lack concern on a better customer service. The business community has poor respect towards consumer rights. Insufficient testing facilities to get analytical reports on food items are another challenge faced by the regulators. Most of the testing labs are not accredited and the reports can be challenged. Therefore, more emphasis has to be placed in developing and promoting accredited laboratory network which is capable of addressing the needs of the food industry as well as the regulators. Further, Sri Lanka has to give due consideration on development of a state of the art food storage system, in order to ensure food safety and food security for its people.
Prosecution of offenders is a reactive measure to ensure food safety and a less effective method in the long term. If so, what are the more effective methods of ensuring healthy food for consumers? Promoting the industry for self-regulation is one option. But further thoughts are necessary on the level of success as a developing country. Moreover it is necessary to persuade the consumers that they have to be vigilant on what they purchase. Whether the product is labelled properly, whether the expiry date is correctly mentioned, whether the product is free from external damages etc. must be carefully examined by the consumers before purchasing food items. If there are organized consumer groups, testing of food items can be done and more consumers can be educated on the contents of food etc. Further they can do market surveys on products. If the consumer movement is more powerful the business community will be flexible and listen to the requirements of the consumers and respect the rights of consumers. Consumers’ right to healthy food can only be achieved through collective efforts of the government (regulatory, testing, training authorities), members of the food industry (manufacturers, importers, distributors, wholesalers and retailers) and the consumers themselves.