Bitter Marico-Dabur war over honey adulteration offers food for thought

Topics Food adulteration | Marico | Dabur

What began as an investigation into alleged malpractices by domestic manufacturers has escalated into a full-blown battle between two prominent players in the category
The report on the adulteration of honey, brought out by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), has opened up a Pandora's box. What began as an investigation into alleged malpractices by domestic manufacturers has escalated into a full-blown battle between two prominent players in the category: Marico and Dabur.

Marico made the first move, saying that Dabur's claim that its honey passed the German NMR test was misleading. The complaint, made to the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) on Thursday, was after Dabur released ads in national dailies in response to the CSE report on Wednesday where it was named for failing a foreign adulteration test.

Dabur hit back, saying Marico's Saffola honey sample from the marketplace had failed the NMR test, prompting it to approach ASCI for misleading claims made by the latter. (NMR, or Nuclear Magnetic Resonance test, is an advanced test to detect adulteration in honey.)

"We will continue to contest the matter in ASCI," Sanjay Mishra, chief operating officer, India sales and chief executive officer, new business, Marico, said. "If there is a threat to our reputation and any disparaging statement made, then we will decide on our future course of action. As of now, I can confirm that nothing has come from ASCI to us regarding the complaint they (Dabur) claim to have filed. According to ASCI protocol, an advertiser has to be informed within 24 hours of a complaint filed against it; that has not happened so far," he added.

Brand experts say this is more than an advertising war. "The issue goes much beyond an ad war because it deals with people's health," says N Chandramouli, CEO, TRA Research, Mumbai-based brand advisory firm. "What goes into your food is a sensitive issue. I am of the view that the food regulator of the country must look into this matter closely," he said.

This point is endorsed by Bejon Mishra, a consumer affairs expert, who was earlier a member of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI).

"Brands may say whatever they have to in defence of their products. But who should the common man believe? I'm of the view that the FSSAI should conduct an unbiased study of all brands to put things in perspective. This will go a long way in reposing faith in the category, " Bejon Mishra said.

The FSSAI has already sought more details from CSE on honey adulteration, which it says has been provided to the regulator.

While the FSSAI steps in to take stock of the situation, the war between Marico and Dabur is reminiscent of the bitter battle fought in the past in categories such as health drinks (Horlicks versus Complan), detergents (Rin versus Ariel) and hygiene (Dettol versus Lifebuoy). More recently, fairness creams saw battles between Hindustan Unilever (HUL) and Emami over trademark infringement.

But then categories with two strong incumbents lend themselves to such brand wars. "In Horlicks versus Complan, the fight was over who was more efficacious as a health drink. In Dettol versus Lifebuoy, the issue was about germ protection and in detergents, the point of contention was who was whiter, " said K V Sridhar, global chief creative officer, Nihilent Hypercollective.

In the honey category, purity is the point of battle, something that both Marico and Dabur say is in their favour.

"Dabur has cleared all the above FSSAI-mandated tests, including SMR (specific marker for rice syrup) test, besides voluntarily conducting NMR test periodically to ensure that our consumers get 100 per cent pure honey with no added sugar/syrups or any other adulterants, " a company spokesperson said.

"Saffola guarantees 100 per cent purity of its honey irrespective of the packaging location. Every batch of Saffola Honey passes 60+ tests, including the NMR technology, which is one of the most advanced tests in the world," Sanjay Mishra said.

Clearly, the last word is not out on this matter.

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