This article is written by Raghav Nagar, a student of Campus Law Center, Delhi University.

In light of the recent controversy surrounding Nestle Maggi, the spotlight is back on the way the packaged food industry is regulated. The issue of packaged foods has rekindled some old questions that need to be addressed, such as-

  1. Don’t consumers have the right to expect some basic standards of responsibility and honesty from these companies?
  2. What recourse does a consumer have when these standards are not followed?

Maybe the only way to ensure accountability and responsible conduct by these companies is to crack the whip. Thankfully, government agencies such as The Ministry of Health and The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India seems to be doing just that. As of mid-June, 2015 the whip cracking has extended to about 18 instant noodles brands and a range of other food items.

The old saying, about how history repeats itself, is quite true for the packaged food and beverage industry. For example, in 2006 sales of Coca Cola and Pepsi plummeted across the country when an advocacy group claimed that their soft drinks contained traces of pesticide.

When these MNCs do not adhere to even the most basic standards of quality and safety in their pursuit of greater profits. It is up to us, the consumers, to ensure that these companies are held accountable. As consumers, we need to be aware of our rights. By the end of this article, you should be able to stand up for your rights. Remember, Goliath was a great warrior and yet David defeated him in battle.

The options

  1. Contact the company/manufacturer

 According to the Consumer Protection Act, this is a mandatory first step for every consumer.

Check the packaging of the product for the ‘customer care’ number and email id. Call/email and inform the company of your complaint. This will act as evidence that you had given the company prior notice before going to the consumer forum and will help in making your case stronger in the said forum.

  1. Get the food sample analyzed under the Food Safety and Standards Act

This direction is not to be explicitly complied with under the Consumer Protection Act. But under the Food Safety and Standards Act you can get your food analyzed by any of the designated food analysts[1]. If the sample is in contravention of the provisions of the Act i.e. found to be adulterated, then the Food Analysts shall forward the report to the Designated Officer to follow the procedure laid down in section 42 of the FSSA for prosecution.  Which empowers the Food Safety Officer to inspect, collect samples and send them to Food Analyst for analysis.

The Designated Officer, after scrutiny of the report of Food Analyst shall decide as to whether the contravention (if the sample tested is adulterated or not) will be punishable with imprisonment or fine only. In the case of contravention punishable with imprisonment, he shall send his recommendations to the Commissioner of Food Safety for sanctioning prosecution.

Thus your complaint will help to ensure action.

  1. File a complaint with the consumer protection forum

What if you find yourself no closer to the solution even after taking the first two steps? You still have the option to file a complaint in the consumer forum. To do this, you will not need a lawyer or any other form of legal assistance (though you have the option to do so).

In the forum your responsibility as a consumer is to prove that the product was sub-standard.

Here your previous step to get your food sample analyzed will serve as proof for the same.    Also During the proceedings the question of evidence may arise. Thus It is a good idea to keep all the related food, bills, invoices, records of telephonic conversations (if possible), email exchanges, etc. to satisfy the question of reasonable doubt i.e. whether your right to safe food was violated or not.

The procedure

  1. How to contact the company

As pointed out above, the first thing a consumer must do is to contact the concerned company directly.

  • Firstly you should write an email to their customer care department and then call them. The contact details can be taken from their website or the packaged product.
  • Secondly send an email to the other top officials as your complaint might be addressed quickly, this is a personal anecdote which entails no guarantee.
  • Thirdly remember to keep the copies of the emails sent and received; records of telephonic conversations (if possible). You can use them as evidence to prove your case in the consumer court.
  1. How to get the food sample analyzed

Under FSSA, food laboratories and research institutions that are accredited by National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories or any other accreditation agency are to be used for the purposes of carrying out analysis of samples by the Food Analysts. The sampling and analysis should be done according to section 47 of this act.

Click here to get the details of the accredited testing laboratories.

  • How to file a complaint in the consumer courts

 Complaints can be filed by

  • either the consumer himself ;
  • one or more consumers in cases where there are numerous consumers having the same interest;
  • The Central/State Government, as the case may be, either in its individual capacity or as a representative of interests of the public.

                       The procedure of filing a complaint is as follows[2]:

  1. Pecuniary jurisdiction or monetary jurisdiction of a particular forum is decided by the value of the goods, services and compensation sought by you. It specifically refers to the monetary value of the suit. Each forum is competent to hear the cases regarding certain monetary value. A matter where the monetary value claimed is higher than what the forum is competent to hear, the parties must approach a higher forum. At the same time they should approach the lowest forum which is competent to hear the suit.

The pecuniary jurisdiction of each of the consumer forums, district, state and national, is clearly defined in the Consumer Protection Act, 1986.

  • If the relief claimed in the complaint is less than Rs. 20, 00,000/-, then the complaint must be filed before the District Consumer Forum.
  • If the relief claimed is between Rs. 20, 00,000/- and Rs. 1, 00, 00,000/-, then the complaint must be filed before the State Commission.
  • When the relief claim exceeds Rs. 1, 00, 00,000/- then the complaint must be filed before the National Commission at New Delhi.
  1. The complainant needs to pay a fee for filing a complaint before the District Forum, State Commission or National Commission
  2. Another important facet of court fees is the manner in which these are to be paid which too is laid out in Rule 9A of The Consumer Protection Rules, 1987. The Rules provide the following methods of payment:
  • Crossed Demand Draft drawn on a nationalized bank or
  • Crossed Indian Postal Order;

These have to be drawn in favor of the President of the District Forum, Registrar of the State Commission or the Registrar of the National Commission as the case may be, and payable at the respective place where the District Forum, State Commission or the National Commission is situated.

  1. The complaint can be sent by Registered Post to the District Forum/ State / National Commission.

 A minimum of 5 copies of the complaint have to be filed.  This includes-

  1. a) Three copies for the Forum [in green (Court) paper]
    1. One for the Office of the Forum and
    2. One for the opposite party.

(Hint-Remember to keep one copy for yourself and ensure that you carry out regular follow-ups after filing the complaint.)

  1. The complaint should be signed by you. If you authorize someone to represent you, give him / her a signed authorization letter. In the event of the death of a complainant, his/her legal heir or representative can continue as the complainant. The format of the complaint should be in this specific manner
  1. A list of documents supporting the allegations should also be furnished along with the complaint, duly signed by you.
  2. The value of the relief includes (where applicable) refunds, damages, litigation costs and interest. The Consumer Protection Act provides for adequate litigation costs to the parties. If you are asking for compensation, quantify the amount and state the break-up i.e., how the amount is arrived at and under what heads. If the relief cannot be quantified, give a notional value.
  3. The limitation period for filing complaint is two years from the date of the cause of action. In case the limitation period expires, the Forum or Commission may still take your complaint, if they are convinced about the reasonableness of the cause for the delay. However, do avoid delays, since you will be required to provide explanations for every single day.

Conclusion

The habit of conforming to the ‘Chalta Hai’ attitude has done us no good. Over and over our health is being jeopardized, to put a stop to this we must wield the sword of collective action and make an effort to create awareness about the redressal mechanisms. Only then can this impending and recurring problem can be rectified once and for all.

[1] List of food analysts http://www.fssai.gov.in/Portals/0/Pdf/List_of_Food_Analyst.pdf

[2] http://www.cag.org.in/guidelines-filing-complaint

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