Consumer Watch

Wendy Knowler fights for your rights...

Wendy Knowler masthead
April 23 2012 at 10:52

Of all the columns I’ve written in recent months, the two that have prompted the biggest reader response have been the one on sneaky shrinkage of pack sizes, and MultiChoice’s unilateral decision to remove the full DStv programme listings from its Dish magazine.

Reader Mike Penrith combined the two with his observation: “Dish magazine, March 2012, 120 pages. Dish magazine April 2012: 64 pages. Product shrinkage?”

Love it!

Many readers have sent me their “pack shrinkage” examples in the past week, most of which have already been featured in Consumer Watch, but here are two that haven’t.

Helen Kacnik said she noticed that Proctor & Gamble’s Head & Shoulders shampoo pack had changed.

“Great new packaging, but it’s now 180ml, whereas the old bottle was 200ml,” she said. “And the smaller pack is the same price as the old one. In other words, a 10 percent increase, without many people realising it.”

It also looks exactly the same size as the old pack.

In fairness, as you’ll see in the photo – the new smaller pack does carry the word “NEW, and directly below that, 180ml” prominently on the front of the pack, which is not  full disclosure, as in “NEW – 20ml smaller pack”, but it’s the beginnings of an alert that the newness has something to do with the size of the pack for those who are sharp enough to make the connection. Incidentally, the 400ml Head & Shoulders bottle is now 360ml.

Marilyn Langford wrote in about Freshpak’s range of flavoured rooibos teabags – a National Brands product.

“A few months months ago I noticed the change in packaging of my Honeybush and Rooibos tea, then I noticed the real changes: the old pack had 40 teabags, selling for R14.95.

“The new cylindrical pack as just 20 teabags, selling for around the same price, if not more. Who needs a cylindrical pack?”

Quite – especially when it means you’re paying double for your tea.

“I phoned Freshpak customer service and was told that there had been several complaints and they were considering making refill packs at a lower price,” Langford said. “Until they do, I won’t be buying my favourite tea any more.”

Responding, consumer liaison manager Tric Stone said Langford was right.

“The initial motivation to change (the pack) was to offer our Freshpak consumers a functional pack that keeps the tea fresh, as well as offering an innovative storage option and ‘tea-tray ready’ new pack presentation, which was initially extremely well received by our consumers.

“However, over the past several months, as economic times have become tougher, we have realised that consumers do not attach the same value to innovation of this nature.

“We have taken the decision to relook at our pack offerings in an effort to remain consumer focused and we hope to have the change-over effective later this year dependent on rate of sale of our current pack and trade process required to reintroduce alternative packaging on shelf.”

In other words, it’s a consumer-driven about-turn – and a good lesson for all food manufacturers.

Most of us are more concerned about what we’re paying for our food, especially basics such as tea, than how pretty the packaging looks on the shelf – or the tea tray.

Loo roll alert

You’ve got to be a pretty wide-awake consumer to buy the best value loo paper, it seems.

Richard Melville wrote to say that he’d bought a pack of Clicks-brand two-ply toilet rolls from the Northcliff branch, only to find that the rolls were in fact, one-ply.

“What a rip-off!” he said.

I took this up with Clicks, and spokeswoman Susann Caminada told me the product was in fact two-ply in that it was embossed and could be split into two sheets.

But Melville was offered a gift card anyway.

Not all two-ply is created equal, it seems. While the number and size are regulated by the government, the thickness of those sheets is not.

Caminada said the two-|ply toilet rolls that Melville bought “falls into the Payless range, which is an entry-level product”. For a more luxury product, consumers could buy branded premium toilet paper, she said.

Good to know.

And here’s something else I’ve just discovered. For years, toilet paper manufacturers have been required by law to ensure that one-ply toilet rolls have at least 500 sheets, and two-ply rolls 350 sheets.

But that regulation was amended last month, allowing manufacturers to make toilet rolls with far fewer sheets per roll. In a move driven by the SA Tissue Manufacturers Association, manufacturers will have a choice: they can produce one-ply rolls with either 500 sheets or just 300 sheets, and two-ply rolls with 350 sheets or just 200 sheets.

The marketing spin goes like this: “What these changes ultimately mean to the consumer is that they will now be able to purchase toilet rolls at a cheaper price point due to the reduction in sheet count of the new offerings.”

The smaller rolls are not on the market just yet – they will be within the next month, apparently – but I am told that they will look slightly smaller than the bigger ones, and the sheet counts will be prominently displayed.

But given that sheet counts have had to be a standard size for years, I suspect that unwary consumers will see what they assume is their usual one-ply or two-ply toilet paper brand on the shelf, at what looks like a bargain price, not realising they’re getting fewer sheets for their money.

Of course, a “cheaper price point” does mean better value – it means you’re paying less and getting less, too.

Claire Bowen, senior brand manager for Nampak Tissue’s Twinsavers product, said the higher sheet count rolls would work out cheaper per sheet than the smaller option.

In other words, the smaller rolls may seem cheaper, but are the more expensive option.

So be warned: when comparing toilet paper prices in the weeks and months to come, make sure you check the sheet count on each pack.

NEW LAW MAKES FOOD LABELS A LOT MORE REVEALING

Label reading has become |a much more interesting |exercise since last month, when the long-awaited food labelling regulations came into effect.

Take Quid – Quantitative Ingredient Declarations. In the past, a manufacturer could call a juice “strawberry juice”, and simply list the other, cheaper juices they added to the mix, without revealing what percentage of the juice was the premium strawberry juice as described.

No more. According to Quid, “Where, in the case of a foodstuff, the labelling places special emphasis on the presence of one or more valuable or characterising ingredients, or where the description has the same effect, the ingoing percentage of this ingredient at the time of manufacture shall be declared (prominently).”

And no ingredient shall be emphasised in any manner if the ingoing percentage of the emphasised ingredient is less than 2 percent by weight – unless its sole purpose is flavouring.

So food labels are now a lot more revealing.

Take Pick n Pay’s six-packs of muffins. There are several variants, but those who’ve been advised to include more fibre in their diets would be likely to gravitate towards the “Bran & Banana” pack.

But the ingredients list reveals digestive bran content to be just 1 percent, and the banana 12 percent, which means those muffins should described as “Banana Muffins”.

I don’t think anyone could successfully argue that sawdust-like digestive bran is a flavouring.

ENERGY DRINKS MUST NOW CARRY WARNINGS

A number of medical journals have published articles strongly advising against children consuming energy drinks – and even sports drinks – and now the government has introduced new legislation aimed at cautioning consumers about drinking highly caffeinated soft drinks.

Last month health minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi signed an amendment to the country’s soft drinks regulations, with regard to “formulated caffeinated beverages” – better known as energy drinks.

Manufacturers and importers have until March to implement the labelling changes.

There is no legislated limit to the amount of caffeine which these drinks may contain, but those which contain more than 150mg of caffeine per litre, shall have to declare the words “High Caffeine Content” as a “clearly legible message” on the front panel on the label.

In other words, no hiding it in small print on the back somewhere.

The caffeine content of SA’s  energy drink brands ranges vary widely. Bioplus is 150mg a litre, while Monster is 350mg a litre.

The tins will also have to state “Not recommended for children under 12 years of age; pregnant or lactating women; persons sensitive to caffeine.”

And the quantity of caffeine – per single serving size, as well as per 100ml – will have to be declared directly under the nutritional label, or next to or below the “High caffeine content” declaration or in the list of ingredients, next to caffeine.

Most of the energy drinks on the market currently carry warnings about the product not being suitable for children, pregnant women or those who are caffeine-sensitive,  in various ways and places on the tin, but spotting the caffeine content on those slim tins is no easy matter.

Red Bull states caffeine content as “0.03%”.

Interestingly, the original proposed amendment, which was published for comment last year, included another warning: “Not to be consumed as a mixture with alcohol beverages.”

For some reason, that warning didn’t make the final amendment, despite the fact that it’s a warning which has been repeatedly made by the scientists and health professionals around the world.

Why? “Although any type of caffeine consumption after a drinking session might reduce sleepiness, it does not alleviate alcohol-related impairment.

“The state of being less likely to accurately appraise the true level of impairment has been labeled “wide-awake drunkenness” and can lead to engaging in risky behaviour.”

Mixing energy drinks with alcohol was not the same as mixing rum with Coke, the article said, as the latter contained far less caffeine.

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