The Consumer Protection Commission of Indecopi has just sanctioned Gloria, Laive and Nestlé, with a total fine of 1,093.3 UIT (Applicable Tax Unit) (S/ 4'427,865) for selling products as milk even if they were not, thus infringing the Code of Protection and Defense of the Consumer. In accordance with Indecopi's sanctioning resolution, the sanctioned companies may not have complied with the suitability duty -for offering products that did not correspond to the denomination recorded in the labeling- and the labeling compliance duty -for not adhering to the corresponding national legislation or, failing that, to the Codex Alimentarius. It should be recalled that this sanction is the result of an ex officio procedure initiated by INDECOPI as a result of having found evidence that the names with which some of the products of the sanctioned companies had been labeled did not comply with national or international standards. The milks case stoked the debate on the front-of-pack labeling of food products and dusted the proposed regulation of the Healthy Eating Act by the Ministry of Health, later modified by Congress.
Role of labeling
The main purpose of labeling and all the information it contains -letters, symbols, shapes, colors, etc.- is to help consumers make informed decisions that are aligned with their interests. Therefore, a good label would be one that achieves this purpose. A label must be suitable, this means that the expectation that it raises in the consumer that evaluates the product must correspond with what the product delivers. Therefore, when there is a discrepancy between what the labeling says and implies and what it actually delivers, the interests of the consumer are affected since he does not receive what the labeling suggested he would receive.
Labeling includes, in addition to text, images, logo, colors, design, shapes, and other features that transmit relevant information to the consumer. According to the Peruvian law (DL 1304 of 2016), labeling includes the brand attached to the product, packaging, as well as all the information required by Article 3 of this law such as the name or denomination of the product, its net content (expressed in a unit of measurement), the expiry date and storage conditions (if it is a perishable product), the condition of the product if defective, used or refurbished, the declaration of ingredients that represent a risk to the health or safety of the consumer, the warning of risk or foreseeable danger that could arise from the nature or use of the product, among other requirements.
Characteristics of good labeling of food products
In order to facilitate an informed decision on the part of the consumer or user, good labeling must contain truthful, complete, timely, relevant and sufficient, and easy to understand information that is not misleading and is accessible to the consumer.
In the particular case of food products, nutritional information is an essential element. This information can be presented within a table or in a linear way, and includes the serving size per container, the number of servings per container and the nutritional components with their respective values. When a consumer is evaluating the purchase of a food product, he must pay special attention to 5 key elements. First, the consumer should pay attention to the size of the serving and the number of servings per container. This information is essential since components such as sugars, carbohydrates, among others, are presented based on the minimum serving size. For example, if the food label indicates that it contains three servings per product and three grams of sugars per serving, it means that there are nine grams of sugars in total in the product. Second, the consumer must take into account the percentage of daily value.
This data indicates the percentage of fats, carbohydrates, among others, that contribute to a daily diet. For illustrative purposes, if the label indicated that the food product contains 5% of the daily value of sodium, it would mean that during the rest of the day, the consumer could consume the remaining 95% of this item, and would be within the limits that are considered good for health.
However, the daily values required for each person are not the same. Therefore, it is recommended that a nutritionist suggest the daily values that each person should consume according to different factors such as age or physical complexion. Third, it is important for the consumer to consider the amount of calories presented per serving. Particularly, caloric intake has been associated with cases of obesity and overweight. In fact, INEI (2016), the Peruvian Center of Social Studies (CEPES) (2015), and the Demographic and Family Health Survey (2016), state that obesity and overweight are one of the main problems of the food situation and public health in Peru. Fourth, it is always important to review the the product ingredients, in case the consumer should take special care with some ingredient. Fifth, the expiry date and the sanitary registration of the product must be verified.
It should be added that, as the consumer pays greater attention to understanding the labeling, he will be more empowered to make healthy, informed decisions. However, it is necessary for the companies to contribute to this same cause and for the State to have a more proactive role in labeling regulation.
This piece of research by Professor Matilde Schwalb collects the results of a research workshop on food labeling, in which Universidad del Pacífico students Gustavo Rodríguez, Alexandra Rodríguez Montes and Diego Ramírez from the Business Administration program participated.
BEYOND THE LAW
If we agree that the central purpose of labeling is to facilitate an informed decision that satisfies the interests of the consumer or user, then simply complying with the law is not enough. Laws and regulations often set minimum requirements and can not cover all possible situations that may occur. In addition, regulations are always interpretable and leave leeway for interpretation and decisions made.
Good labeling is that which, in addition to complying with the law, provides sufficient, relevant, easy to understand, and timely information so as to help the consumer make the decision that best suits his interests and does not confuse him. A supplier that is oriented to satisfying its consumers and clients, will perfectly know what information to put on the label, what figures or graphics to choose, what colors and design are the most appropriate, what font size to use, where to place the expiry date, among other relevant features.
When a consumer or potential user can not easily find the expiry date of a product, can not read its ingredients or components, misinterprets the image that accompanies the text, does not understand the meaning of the warnings, or gets so confused with the text that ends up overlooking the most relevant, among other failures, then we have a label that is not appropriate to the interests of the consumer.
Marketing proclaims that its central purpose and its raison d'être is the consumer, that it exists because of him (if there are no consumers there is no company) and for him (marketing exists to satisfy the consumer and contribute to improving his quality of life). Labeling, on the other hand, as part of the marketing strategy of a product or service, reflects the supplier's priorities and can not hide its true intentions. Therefore, decisions on labeling are a great opportunity for companies to show that they really care about the consumer and that they are their priority.