The measure of weights

Stricter rules for packaging commodities were to become effective next month but are now postponed

This column was first published on 22 June 2012 and had to be republished due to technical glitches.

Metrology is the scientific study of weights and measures. Legal metrology is the branch of this study that is focused on whether standard weights and measures are used and the process of using them is according to the law. In the context of consumers, the law we are referring to is the Legal Metrology Act, 2009. It has various sections dealing with the model of the physical weights and measures and how they should be approved, verification when goods move between states and so on.

But the part that is interesting is the one on packaged commodities. The Act was amended in 2011 to get strict about how packaging information should be displayed on pre-packaged goods. As per the Legal Metrology (Packaged Commodities) Rules 2011, all packaged commodities must bear the following information mandatorily:

Name and address of the manufacturer and/or packer or importer if the product is imported.

Name, address, telephone number, email address, if available, of the person who can be or the office which can be contacted in case of consumer complaints.

The common or generic names of the commodity contained in the package and in case of packages with more than one product, the name and number or quantity of each product.

The net quantity, in terms of the standard unit of weight or measure. If it is sold by number, the number of the commodity contained in the package.

The month and year in which the commodity is manufactured or pre-packed or imported.

The retail sale price of the package.

If the sizes of the commodity contained in the package are relevant, then dimensions of the commodity.

That’s a whole lot of packaging rules to be followed. There’s more.

Sometimes when a manufacturer wants to give a discount, he puts stickers where the new price is printed. You might have seen them on food products. Those stickers can’t cover the original maximum retail price (MRP).

Then, all the information cited in the rules above, should be on what in packaging is called “principal display panel", not scattered all over the packet.

If someone wants to advertise mentioning a price, for example, “Only 25", then he has to mention alongside the quantity offered at that price, so as not to mislead the consumer.

If there is a little pouch as a sample or free offering inside the main packet, then all the seven points mentioned above have to be revealed for both—the main commodity and the sample.

In case of food items, apart from the above, there should be a “Best Before" date and the names and quantities of all the ingredients used must be listed.

Pretty thoughtful isn’t it?

The date of 1 July 2012 is a significant one for packaged commodities in the Indian market. From that date on, rubber-stamping, printing or pasting stickers to declare all the mandatory information such as MRP, net weight and date of manufacture is to be stopped. This was already part of the amendments made in 2011 but manufacturers were given a few months to get their act together and print packaging material which had a clear principal display panel.

There was another important rule which was to become effective from 1 July. Specific commodities were to be packed in specific quantities, as given in the second schedule of the Legal Metrology (Packaged Commodities) Rules 2011. So, baby food can only be packed in multiples of 100g, coffee and tea powder in 25g, 50g, 100g, 200g or 250g, 500g, 1kg and thereafter multiples of 1kg.

Nineteen packaged goods are listed. This standardization is important because in its absence a consumer can make a poor choice based on wrong information. Imagine a consumer in a supermarket staring at various brands of detergent powder in the aisle. If all of them seem the same size and look like say, half a kilo packets, she will assume their content is 500g. Little will she suspect that one may be 480g, another 468g and a third 475g. Her decision about which one to choose will be based on a faulty comparison, because not only is the price different, so is the quantity.

Take the case of mineral water. Given the extent of unauthorised mineral water companies operating, it helps consumers to know the standard pack sizes in which mineral water can be sold. If someone is selling 50ml or 350ml of mineral water for instance, it would be non-standard and hence you might want to suspect the origins of such water.

However, the 1 July deadline for adhering to this rule has been postponed to 1 November. Until then manufacturers can pack in contents of any weight and merely declare, as they have done till now, “Not a standard OR non-standard pack size under the Legal Metrology (Packaged Commodities) Rules, 2011". But they must declare it prominently on the package, says the proviso.

In recent times, many consumer organizations have protested that in some products, the price has remained the same, but the contents are lighter. So a 10 chips packet which originally had 100g, may have 89g but you will not know, as it can print the above declaration (prominently) on the package and get away. Consumer organizations are disappointed that the date of adherence to standard weights has been postponed and have been joining hands to protest to the powers that be in the department of consumer affairs.

Ah, the India story of laws that never get fully implemented. Comforting, in its familiarity.

Vandana Vasudevan is a graduate from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and writes on mass urban consumer issues. Your comments are welcome at toughcustomer@livemint.com

Also Read | Vandana Vasudevan’s earlier columns

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