07 January 2014

The State as ‘Consumer Protection Authority’

When the nation was hit by the DCD controversy several things happened.  For a few days Fonterra products were off the shelves.  People also became wary of purchasing milk powder products from New Zealand.  Maliban went on an advertising spree, claiming that they import from Australia and that the Government of that country claims milk powder DCD-free milk powder.   Local producers cleared their stocks.  The demand for fresh milk went up.  The worth of milk powder and indeed milk in general was debated. 

With tests, claims and clearances, the shelves were filled again, by and by.  But then, there was a sudden dearth.  It was not that people were sweeping the products off the shelves.  They were not arriving at outlets.  If the controversy had in fact dulled the demand for imported milk powder products, this could not have happened.  Then there was talk of increasing milk powder prices. Then there were several cases where the Consumer Affairs Authority found large quantities of milk powder being hoarded.  It doesn’t take much to join the dots and conclude that there’s a link between an anticipated price hike, hoarding and empty shelves.  Now it looks like all milk powder distributors are in cahoots so they can get the right price.

Milk powder producers and distributors make massive profits.  They spend massive sums of money on advertising.  They have no qualms about making exaggerated claims.  Some deliberately use fear mongering as a marketing tool to entice the gullible to purchase their products.  They’ve even purchased insurance of sorts by offering generous sponsorships to ‘professional’ bodies who then could be counted on to express friendly opinion on issues pertaining to nutrition.  Perhaps in desperation, New Zealand even offered to help develop the local dairy industry. The last time someone tried to do that, the Milk Board went bust and dairy farmers were put at the mercy of a multinational. 

There’s irrefutable proof that while milk is certainly healthier than let’s say what’s dished out at fast food outlets, it is not everything it is made out to be.  What milk contains, the consumer can obtain from other sources.  We’ll die without water but will get by without milk.  China has, for millennia!  It looks like the consumers have cottoned on to this inconvenient truth.  Perhaps they’ve realized that a good cup of milk-tea in the morning is more about habit than about necessity and that if wetting the throat is what is needed, plain tea or just plain water would do the trick.  Or kola kenda!

The consumers are bombarded with lies, not just from milk powder companies.  The information flow is structured in ways that are skewed against consumer interests.  The individual consumer doesn’t have the contact or other capacities to lobby relevant state authorities.  They cannot bribe officials in key positions.  They cannot threaten media institutions; ‘we will not buy your paper’ is a poor threat compared to ‘we will not advertise!’  Their contribution to political campaigns, typically, is limited to a single vote.  It’s different with big-buck companies.  While commending the Consumer Affairs Authority, the Ministry of Science and Technology as well as other state agencies for keeping milk powder distributors on their toes, we have to conclude that the state, overall, has a lot more to do before we can feel safe. 

Where are the regulations?  Where are the mechanisms that ensure what is put on the shelves is safe and wholesome?  Where are the effective labeling laws? Where is the ‘White Paper on Ethical Advertising’? 

Every citizen is a consumer and the state has a right to operate as the overall ‘Consumer Protection Authority’.  It is hardly that.  It is in the long term interest of all stakeholders, milk powder distributors included, for the state to get its act together. 

And it is not just about milk, folks.  Scan all the shelves in all the supermarkets.  Check all the products that come in packets.  See if you can read what’s in the small print.  Check if you understand everything that’s written.  Go to a pola.  Ask yourself if you can be certain that the handsome fruits and vegetables are free of chemicals.   Are those mangoes and plantains injected with poisons to speed up ripening and look good on the outside, have you asked?  Do you ask yourself why there are no flies buzzing over the dried fish and if this is because it is bathed in formalin? 

There’s a lot that the Government can do.  There’s very little that consumers can do, but they can do their best and perhaps this ‘best’ should include telling representatives and would-be representatives that they have to take a stand on consumer issues.