N Touch
Wednesday 13 November 2019
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Commentary

Ignorance is not always bliss

The mark of an advanced country is one that looks after its people, especially the weakest members of the population, and makes it possible for them to defend their rights. The countries that qualify are mainly the European and Scandinavian countries, Japan, Canada, and one or two Latin American, and Eastern countries. The US is a conundrum because it is a highly developed country and yet has huge pockets of very disadvantaged people, but it does have processes for enabling them to address infringement of their rights, something that is not easy to do in our country.

We are unaware of the range of our rights and what to do if they are violated. I am guessing that if 100 individuals were polled, 95 per cent would not know what a Bureau of Standards is, if it existed here and how to lodge a complaint. Yet the bureau is the body that supposedly protects us from poor-quality goods and services, including electrical wiring and building codes, but excluding food, drugs and cosmetics.

We have an Advertisements Regulation Act, which tells you the rules governing public advertising but it does not seek to protect us from advertisements and advertisers per se or govern the content of advertisements. Whatever general or specific protection might exist for consumer matters seems to fall under the Consumer Protection and Safety Act and the Consumer Affairs Division of the Ministry of Trade and Industry, which has a Consumer Protection Services Unit (CPSU) with a pretty broad brief.

It would be interesting to know how much redress is really available to the public, how proactive the CPSU is in informing the public of their rights, and in training retailers about consumer rights. See this link: https://tradeind.gov.tt/consumer-affairs-division/

Question: If I wish to purchase an item advertised for sale in a shop at a certain price and am then asked to pay another amount, am I protected from this mis-advertising or unfair exchange? In my personal experience of the US and UK, retailers have a duty to sell goods to me at the advertised price. However, I once chose to cancel a purchase in a TT food shop, as the vendor was unwilling to sell the item at the advertised price. That was a clear breach of the trade descriptions, the fair trading, or even the trade marks legislation, but which one?

Question 2: Who understands the labelling of imported foods? Surely, all food stores selling fresh imported produce should have clear charts on the walls or flyers to explain that a five-digit code starting with the number 9 indicates an organically produced item and 8 means genetically modified, and a four-digit code starting with 3 or 4 means a conventionally produced item. Someone related to me about being ignored when she complained at a branch of TT’s largest food retail chain of a mismatch between the pricing and labelling of a supposedly organic imported food item.

Question 3: Who sets the standard for the sale and production of expensive organic foods in TT and is actively informing consumers about them? The popularity of organic foods has deepened, not least because many more people seem to be suffering from allergies and need them.

But how can we be sure that no pesticides, synthetic fertilisers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or ionising radiation have been used by farmers? Have the organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals not fed on antibiotics or growth hormones?

These are the hallmark of organic foods. Some sort of labelling to protect consumers is particularly necessary with regard to locally produced organic food, which appears to be unregulated and open to abuse; without it, misplaced trust is a real possibility.

Question 4: Have we ever used the weedkiller Roundup in this country? How can we find out?

We have a high local rate of cancers, which might well be linked to the environment and our food. Last week a US court awarded a couple US$2 billion in compensation for their cancers, which they proved were the result of a GMO weedkiller, commonly used by farmers, called Roundup. Just in March, another US federal jury made Bayer, the food and pharmaceutical giant, pay US$80 million to a 70-year-old Californian man who claimed and proved the same herbicide had contributed to his cancer.

We should establish a TT network of local citizen advice bureaux where members of the over-populated legal fraternity who are getting themselves into a lot of mischief should spend part of their working life giving pro-bono legal advice to citizens in return for their free state education. Many people do not know how to access scattered information or how to deal with authority that is used to autocratic behaviour, and need help.

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