Businesses, Consumers Bear Brunt of Hoax Circulated on Goods



The right institutions have been established with the right mandates but low capacity seems to hinder integrated operations that could best serve the interests of the business competition and consumer health. DAWIT ENDESHAW, FORTUNE STAFF WRITER explores the implications of recent soft drink hoaxes on social media and legitimate complaints inadequately treated for all concerned.


One week after World Blood Donors Day, the staff and administration of the Ethiopian Red Cross Society (ERCS), located on Ras Abebe Aregay Street, are still overwhelmed by the huge turnout of donors on the day. The other topic and issue they had to and still have to manage is the alternative drink they have to avail for donors.

As medical procedure it is recommended that one has to take an extra four glasses of non-alcholic drinks after giving blood. ERCS provides this extra drink for every blood donor. For that it has had a standing partner for the over 50 year service. Despite shifts in ownership, Mirinda was even perceived as a suitable drink for the weak.

That has now changed.

“Not everybody is comfortable drinking Mirinda anymore,” Martha Bekele, blood donation coordination team head told Fortune.

The recent round of social media messages indicating that people had fallen ill after drinking Mirinda due to its having been poisoned, with particular numbers and names of physicians and institutions was a bit alarming for the public to pass lightly.

Unless this perception fades away the society will be exposed to more expense which was never in the plan.

As a result the Society has provided an alternative drink. An interim purchase of 12,000 half-litre bottles of Fanta orange soft drink was purchased at a cost of more than 100,000 Br. However, the Red Cross Society is not alone in feeling the pressure.

Moha Soft Drinks S.C. has also felt the hit strongly.

The daily sales report in the past three weeks is still consistently lower, by 36pc-40pc, according to the company’s report. Expenses too have escalated.

“We have pumped an extra 50pc into our promotions budget,” Maru Lemma, trade and marketing officer of MOHA, disclosed to Fortune. ”We have been shot by an enemy we have not so far identified,” speculating about competitors.

Such a hoax is not the first of its kind.

A few months ago a viral message on social media was shared showing Coca Cola soft drinks being produced in a cottage industry in a setting where sanitation was highly compromised.

Moha had to fight the back, all alone.

It immediately gave a press conference within two days of the hoax and contacted Zewditu Memorial Hospital, one of the named institutions as well as the Hawassa City Administration’s Health Department.

Both institutions cooperated, writing a formal letter unequivocally stating that whatever took place did not happen at their institutions.

The issue, however, goes beyond one company’s agenda. There are other named institutions that should have come forward and taken similar action in response to this havoc created by an unknown source.

“Mirinda was the only soft drink I allowed my five-year old boy to drink, and he used to love it,” said Firtuna Ahadu, 34, with her eyes narrowed in contemplation. She further asked the shop keeper if he had heard any updates on what she had read on her Facebook page.

He could not give her any guarantee. She left the shop contemplating.

The Trade Competition & Consumers Protection Authority (TCCPA) was actually created to address such confusion.

Standing out as part of the rationale for its establishment is, “preventing proliferation of goods and services that endanger health of the consumer mainly by availing information and creating a system that protects business community from anti-competitive and unfair market practices.”

The objective is also meant to protect consumers from misleading market conduct.

Several companies share the experience of seemingly having no protection from what seems to be harmful to their interests.

In the issues around Anchor powdered milk, which was unspecific about its nutritional value and questionable quality of Prigat mango juice product of Great Abyssinia Plc, the companies bore the brunt.

Officials in the Consumer Protection Authority have their own misgivings but are confronted by a list of obstacles from doing what they were established to do. Though directly assigned to ensure the safety and interest of the public and businesses the Authority itself is still in the dark, with no information and capacity to follow through on reports such as those being circulated.

The biggest problem highlighted by the recently completed survey that it commissioned, was the lack of integration of institutions working towards the same goal.

For instance, a huge gap exists between the Food Medicine & Health Care Administration and Control Authority (FMHACA) and the Consumer Protection Authority which a Memorandum of Understanding has not been able to close.

The Consumer Authority since the message on Mirinda went viral, asked the FMHACA to provide it with information on the current status of the product and any confirmation on the issue. Three weeks down the line it still is waiting for response.

FMHACA, besides making core technical assessments, providing information to stakeholders is one of its important duties for which a designated unit is operational.

Not only the Authority but businesses too are decrying the lag and reluctance of FMHACA to disseminate relevant information to those institutions working to the same end and to the public.

Even in cases where FMHACA proactively suspended products, it has not formally informed the Consumer Protection Authority or the public at large.

In the Prigat juice case, a letter was randomly uploaded from one of the branches of FMHACA and shared in the public sphere through social media platforms, indicating that there was a quality problem. But it left the public in a limbo.

“Even when the company and FMHACA reached a solution, the Authority did not formally communicate this, which leads to a lingering challenge to the products,” an expert closely involved in the case told Fortune.

Prigat Juice’s temporary suspension kicked off by an anonymous whistleblower on the FMHACA hot-line, was resolved in less than 10 days. Company sources, which were suspicious of the intent of the whistleblower, disparaged the whole process and impact.

“The action was too fast and too brief, yet the publicity was damaged,” said a company representative Fortune talked to during the suspension.

Ethio Ventures Limited Apex Bottling Plc, bottler of the first mineral water Highland, was among the many that paid a huge price for uncontrolled negative publicity. Some even attached the company’s falling apart this occurrence and its impact.

It was this and other similar actions that justified the establishment of a Trade Competition & Consumer Protection Institution by proclamation.

Under the auspices of the Authority, is a special tribunal set-up to see cases related to unfair trade practices.

Since it became operational less than two years, it has received more than 200 hundred cases involving consumer rights while no new cases related with unfair trade competition. The Authority’s prosecutors, representing consumers have taken hundreds of cases to court.

Despite numerous complaints from businesses and consumers, the Authority’s Tribunal has been defunct for almost half a year now.

“The senior judge of the Tribunal has resigned, and we are still waiting for a replacement,” said a senior director of the Authority.

He also admitted huge constraints on capacity at any level.

Now that crimes and channels of unfair trade practices are evolving, the challenges are much higher than the capacity of the Tribunal.

“It is high time that the institutions assess their performance and capacity,” a lawyer representing a company on the Tribuna, who is displeased by the half-house situation, commented.

He recommends that the institutions should surpass the perpetrators both in terms of skill and technology – the most deadly platform for businesses.

The recently approved proclamation on cyber crimes could be a revamping tool for the institution to assert its position and mandate.

The law prescribes rigorous imprisonment not exceeding five years and fines not exceeding 50,000 Br.

A survey commissioned by Competition & Consumers Protection Authority on the other hand, has highlighted misleading advertisements as a serious threat to fair trade and consumers’ safety. It has recommended a stronger linkage between the media, FMHACA and the Authority.



By DAWIT ENDESHAW
FORTUNE STAFF WRITER

Published on Jun 28,2016 [ Vol 17 ,No 843]


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