Free Press Journal

Making online purchases less risky


How many of you find it most convenient to buy your groceries and vegetables online? I do. But I have also realised that I end up spending hours, sometimes, for the so-called convenience of buying from home. It takes time to compare products, sift through the different weightages and figure out whether the many ‘offers’ and discounts flashed at you are genuine or a problem.

For instance, when Kraft cheese offered 50% off on products last week, my first reaction was, “is it close to expiry”? Maybe Shah Rukh Khan had the answer – but I can’t ask him. I can only watch him claiming over and over on television that he, too, is an online shopper like me. The product’s ‘best before’ data was not displayed on the website or visible on the product.

Last June, the government passed the Legal Metrology (Packaged Commodities) Amendment Rules, 2017 which govern packaging and labelling of goods sold to people in India. These rules, which have been applicable to every retail corner shop, became applicable to online sellers only from 1st January 2018. Until now, they have been happily avoiding responsibility even for fake and spurious products sold on their platforms. They’ve also been caught announcing mega discounts on a fudged base price and blamed it on individual re-sellers when caught.

Here is how the new rules empower you as a consumer. Every e-commerce website will have to display, in a legible font, the name and address of manufacturer/packer/importer; country of origin/manufacture; common/generic names of the commodity; net quantity and dimensions of the product; expiry date or “Best Before” or “Use by Date”; and the MRP inclusive of all taxes. Only one MRP must be displayed. In addition, sellers may also display barcodes, QR Codes.

The bad news is that online sellers are still dragging their feet. Their compliance is patchy and often non-existent. In May, the government issued a ‘final warning’ to online sellers, and threatened prosecution. The penalty for non-compliance is fines that could go up to Rs 50,000 or double in case of repeat offences, as well as imprisonment.

Until the amendment kicked in, many ecommerce giants like Amazon and Flipkart have been getting away by projecting themselves as ‘marketplaces’, which do not have their own inventory but provide a platform to innumerable individual sellers. The amended rules require individual retailers to make disclosures, but hold the e-commerce giants responsible for the “correctness of declarations” and for adequate due diligence before dispatching products.

But again, the bigger companies, with deep pockets are not a problem because they are quick to offer an exchange or a refund if you are not satisfied. The situation is vastly different with hundreds of smaller companies that either deliberately aim to cheat with sub-standard products, or disappear without delivering the promised product.

It is important to know that the new rules were framed only when the number of complaints in 2016-17 doubled to over 50,000 from around 24,000 in the previous year. It will be interesting to watch when the government moves from ‘warning’ e-commerce companies of action, to actually doing something about it.

It is also important to remember that when it comes to buying food products, this is only half the battle. Disclosures of what goes into a product are almost completely absent, making online purchases a hazardous activity for the discerning consumer.

Take my own example. I was experimenting with cutting out milk products and was floored by the multi-pack offer on Kara coconut milk. The carton promised it had no preservatives, flavouring or artificial colouring. What could be better? After a couple of months of innumerable curries and soups using this lovely, thick, coconut milk I realised that my inflamed gut and bloating seemed to have a connection with the coconut consumption. It is only when I decided to look at the pack again with the small print with contents that I discovered it contains Carrageenan often listed in products by the code number E407. Extracted from red seaweed, it is used to thicken and emulsify yogurt, paneer, soy milk, ice-cream and other foods. Carrageenan may be harmless on some people, but is linked to gastro-intestinal problems for many others.

Similarly, try finding even a whole wheat bread or bran bread that does not contain Potassium Bromate, even though it is banned in most developed countries including China because it is a carcinogen.

To cut a long story short, there are savvy consumers and there are those who don’t care about the number of dangerous additives, thickeners, emulsifiers, colouring material and stabilisers that go into processed food that we consume everyday (some like to call it industrial food); while there are others who spend a long time checking labels in detail to bring some sense back to their lives.

All this is governed by FSSAI (Food Safety and Standards Authority of India), which lays down rules and standards for manufacture, storage, distribution, sale and import of food products, their safety and hygiene. So far, there is very little disclosure even by those websites which claim to sell organic or gourmet food. But that is another battle that consumers will need to fight by logging in complaints with the FSSAI and following them up for action.

Sucheta Dalal is the managing editor of Moneylife Magazine and a Founder Trustee of Moneylife Foundation. She was awarded a Padma Shri in 2006 for investigative journalism.