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A CASE THAT REVOLUTIONARISED PACKAGING OF PRODUCTS

Turns out that the Courts in India work tirelessly to not only secure our rights but also make our daily errands easier and simpler. Assuming that the readers are aware of what the green and the brown circle indicates on the packages, how many times have we not simply glanced at the green/brown circle to know whether a snicker bar or the Britannia cake has all vegetarian ingredients or for that matter any other product, all it takes is a few seconds to get this information. Imagine if we had to go through the entire description of the ingredients on the packaging or even worse what if it were never mentioned on the package?

Not many of us know that the circles were a result of what was held in the case of Ozair Hussain v. Union of India by the High Court of Delhi (AIR 2003 Delhi 103). Since you have already come this far reading the article (it would only take you a few minutes to read the intricacies of the case) why not go ahead reading the intricacies of this case, it would only take a few minutes.

Facts:

The petitioner, an animal welfare volunteer is a promoter and believer of animal rights and objects the consumption and use of animals and their derivatives for food, cosmetics and drugs. The fact that almost half of the vegetarian population in India are illiterate and do not understand English moved the petitioner to seek for the cosmetic and food products to bear an easily recognizable symbol conveying the origin or ingredients of the products, whether vegetarian or non-vegetarian, so that both literate or illiterate consumers can make an informed choice before selecting the products and complete disclosure of constituents of cosmetics and food products by pleading that the Articles 19(1)(a), 21, 25 of the Constitution and the Preamble to the Constitution mandates disclosure of information.

Issues:

  1. whether or not in this country a consumer of cosmetics, drugs and articles of food has a constitutionally guaranteed right to full disclosure of the ingredients thereof clearly specified on the product or its label or wrapper by means of a writing?
  2. whether or not packages of non-vegetarian products should bear a symbol giving their non-vegetarian origin?
  3. whether or not a package of vegetarian product should also bear a symbol?

Rule:

It is the fundamental right of the consumer to know whether the food products, cosmetics and drugs are of non-vegetarian or vegetarian origin, as otherwise it will violate their fundamental rights under Articles 19(1)(a), 21 and 25 of the Constitution.

It is held that the Constitution mandates disclosure of information, since there is a constitutionally guaranteed right of the consumers to the full disclosure of the ingredients of cosmetics, drugs and articles of food.

A consumer of cosmetics, drugs and articles of food has a constitutionally guaranteed right to the full disclosure of the ingredients thereof clearly specified on the product or its label or wrapper by means of a writing; (ii) packages of non-vegetarian products should bear a symbol giving their non-vegetarian origin; and (iii) a package of vegetarian product should also bear a symbol.

Analysis:

The answer to the first issue lies in Articles 19(1)(a), 21 and 25 of the Indian Constitution read with a few provisions of the Articles of the European Convention on Human Rights, International Convention on Civil and Political Rights.

Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights states that everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression, and this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information of ideas of all kinds regardless  of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice. Reading Article 19(1)(a) along with Article 19(1) and 19(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which India is a signatory, it can be inferred that right to freedom of speech and expression includes freedom to seek, receive and impart information of ideas. It seems to us that freedom to hold opinions, ideas, beliefs and freedom of thought, etc., which is also enshrined in Preamble to the Constitution, is part of freedom of speech and expression.

In this aforementioned context the Court reads Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution to serve the following two purposes, i.e. 1) it can help the consigner to discover the truth about the composition of the products, whether made of animals including birds and fresh water or marine animals or eggs, and (2) it can help him to fulfil his belief or opinion in vegetarianism.

The Court in this case expanded the meaning of the term ‘liberty’ in Article 21 of the Constitution by not confining the term to mere freedom from bodily restraint but rather extended the beauty of the term to other rights such as the right to hold opinions and the right to sustain and nurture such opinion. Article 21 provided this right to every Indian citizen and that it guaranteed his/her right to receive information and to know the ingredients of the cosmetics, drugs and food products.

Article 25 of the Constitution deals with freedom of conscience. In the present context if the packages of food, cosmetics and drugs do not disclose any information through an appropriate symbol or in writing about the contents therein then the freedom of conscience of the consumer is violated as they may be unconsciously consuming a product against their faiths, beliefs and opinions.

 In case of food products some of the amendments that the Court made to Part VII of the Food Adulteration Act of 1954 are as following:- the names of the ingredients used in the product along with their composition must be disclosed on the packaging and a declaration to indicate that a product is a vegetarian or non-vegetarian shall be made by a green or a brown colour filled circle inside the square with a green or a brown outline respectively having the side double the size of the diameter of the circle. Such symbol must be prominently displayed on the packaging having a contrast background close to the name or brand name of the product and on the labels, containers, pamphlets, leaflets, advertisements in any media. If the product contains egg only as a non-vegetarian ingredient then the same must be declared in addition to the symbol.

Where cosmetics are concerned, they must be treated at par with the packaging of food for the purpose od disclosure of their ingredients. Moreover directions were given to the effect that, a cosmetic or a drug other than a life-saving drug containing ingredients of a non-vegetarian origin then the package shall carry label bearing a red colour symbol on the principal display panel just close in proximity to name or brand name of the drug or cosmetic. In the case of a cosmetic or a drug other than a life-saving drug containing all ingredients of vegetarian origin then the package shall bear a green colour symbol on the principal display panel just close in proximity to name or brand name of the drug or cosmetic. Whether the ingredients are of vegetarian or a non-vegetarian origin a declaration shall be made in writing on the package indicating the nature of the origin of the product.

With regards to life saving drugs the Court was of the opinion that the consumer need not be informed in his own interest as to whether that particular life saving drug is derived or manufactured, wholly or partly, from an animal as it is conducive to the preservation of life.  Drugs which are not life-saving drugs must stand at part with the food products and in case they are derived from animals, whether in whole or in part, the consumers must be informed.

Conclusion:

This Judgement truly revolutionized the packaging of cosmetic, drug and food products and the way consumer rights were perceived in the past. The Court once again echoed that it is important to respect a person’s beliefs, practices and opinions and if receiving certain information is vital to a consumer’s opinion, belief and practices then it is important that he/she is informed but such information. Through this case the consumer rights were once again strengthened and went on to secure the rights of the most vulnerable consumer, i.e. an illiterate consumer. This case can is just another example of the lengths  the judiciary goes to, to safeguard the rights of its citizens.  

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