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Advertisers Beware: Some serious food for thought this festive season

The festive season of Navratri, Durga Puja, Dussehra and Diwali are here. An inseparable part of Indian festivities is Food – whether it is to offer it to the deity or to family and friends. Food advertising is regulated by the FSSAI and the Consumer Protection Act. Amongst the key provisions newly introduced in the Act, are those on Misleading Advertisements and endorsements. Advocate Aazmeen Kasad’s article covers these aspects from both the laws’ perspective.

Festivity is in the air with Navratri ongoing and within this week, Bengalis across the country will commence celebrating Durga Puja. In a week from today, the country will be celebrating Dussehra, which will shortly be followed by Diwali. An integral part of any Indian celebrations entail food – be it as offerings to a deity who is worshipped, or family and friends.

Also read:  Advertising with Medical Practitioners? Dr. NO!

The food and beverage industry in India constituted about 40 per cent of its consumer-packaged goods industry. The market size of the food and beverages industry across the nation was estimated to be around $46 billion in 2020, as per Statista. (Source: https://www.statista.com/statistics/742909/india-food-and-beverages-market-size/ )

The growth rate of packaged food industry across India from fiscal year 2010 to fiscal year 2020. (Source: https://www.statista.com/statistics/878455/india-growth-rate-of-packaged-food-industry/)

The growth rate of packaged food industry across India was estimated to be 16 per cent from fiscal year 2015 to 2020, up from about 15.6 per cent from fiscal year 2010 to fiscal year 2015, as per Statista.

It’s no wonder then that food business operators [as they are called by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI)] advertise around the year and especially during festive seasons. Advertisements enticing consumers to buy soft drinks and celebrate with packaged snack foods, chocolates and packaged sweets abound.

Section 24 of the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 (the ‘Act’) provides restrictions on advertisements related to food and prohibits unfair trade practices in promoting the sale, supply, use and consumption of articles of food. The Act expressly prohibits an advertisement of any food, which is misleading or deceiving or contravenes the provisions of the Act, rules and regulations notified under it.

The Act bars any false or misleading representation/ claims being made with respect to the standard, quality, quantity, grade composition, need for/ usefulness or any efficacy guarantee being made to the public unless it is based on adequate or scientific justification.

Per Section 53 of the Act, any person who publishes, or is a party to the publication of an advertisement, which (a) falsely describes any food; or (b) is likely to mislead as to the nature or substance or quality of any food or gives false guarantee, is liable to be fined up to Rs 10 lakh.

The provision not only holds the advertiser liable, but the publisher of the false and misleading advertisement and the endorsers will also be equally liable for the same.

Having said that, the Act does provide certain defences for such parties in Section 80. A party held liable can claim that the publication of the advertisement was done in the ordinary course of business without any knowledge of the fact that publishing the said advertisement would constitute an offence.

Another form of defence available is that the person undertook all reasonable precautions and exercised all due diligence to prevent the commission of the offence; and that the offence was committed on account of an act or default of another person or reliance on information supplied by another person, etc.

A number of food brands engage celebrities to endorse their products. While there is no prohibition under any applicable law on using celebrity endorsements for food products, the celebrities/ endorsers should bear in mind the liability that can arise both under the Section 53 of the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 as also under the newly enforced Consumer Protection Act, 2019.

If an advertisement contravenes the provisions of the Act, but the label of the product accurately states the relevant information regarding the product, will the advertiser still be liable for the fine? The provisions of the Section 53 of the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 states that the fact that a label or advertisement relating to any article of food in respect of which the contravention is alleged to have been committed contained an accurate statement of the composition of the food shall not preclude the court from finding that the contravention was committed.

A number of food advertisers resort to Comparative Advertising. Advertisers should be cautious when resorting to comparative advertising to avoid being sued for unfair anddishonest/ misleading advertising. How does one ensure honest comparisons? There are several checks and measures that advertisers should ensure adherence to. The foremost is by comparing apples to apples. Invariably, advertisers risk their campaign by comparing apples to oranges. Most brands which indulge in such kind of advertising believe that they are safe by writing a disclaimer in a small font at the end of the advertisement.  However, the courts have held a contrary view as most consumers believe what they see and hear in the advertisements. The small type disclaimers are illegible and seldom read by the consumers. Besides, a disclaimer cannot be used to correct a misleading claim in an advertisement nor contradict the main claim in the advertisement.

In May 2020, the Delhi High Court restrained Indian healthcare company Zydus Wellness from airing its television commercial comparing its health drink ‘Complan’ with Horlicks, saying the advertisement disparaged the rivals product with its claim that one cup of Complan was equivalent to two cups of Horlicks, without any voiceover of the size of the serving. Justice Mukta Gupta stated that Horlicks has made out a prima facie case for grant of interim injunction against the television commercial as there was no voice-over with regard to the disclaimer in reference to serve size of Complan and Horlicks nor sufficient time to read it.

The Act introduces new provisions on ‘Misleading Advertisements’ and ‘Celebrity Endorsements’. Additionally, a new mechanism has been put in place by which complaints filed against a misleading advertisement shall be investigated and pecuniary penalties up to Rs 50 lakh shall be imposed on the advertiser if the advertisement is found to be false or misleading and up to Rs 10 lakh on the persons publishing the said misleading advertisements.

Per Section 2(1) of the Act, an ‘advertisement’ means any audio or visual publicity, representation, endorsement or pronouncement made by means of light, sound, smoke, gas, print, electronic media, internet or website and includes any notice, circular, label, wrapper, invoice or such other documents. Therefore, this includes advertisements not only on the traditional media such as print, radio or television advertisements, but also includes packaging, point of sale material, etc. Advertisements on the internet including social media such as ads posted on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc., also fall within the purview of the Act, as do advertisements on websites, which includes the advertiser’s own website(s).

A ‘misleading advertisement’ in relation to any product or service is an advertisement, which (i) falsely describes such product or service; or (ii) gives a false guarantee to, or is likely to mislead the consumers as to the nature, substance, quantity or quality of such product or service; or (iii) conveys an express or implied representation which, if made by the manufacturer or seller or service provider thereof, would constitute an unfair trade practice; or (iv) deliberately conceals important information. Thus, any advertisement which expressly or impliedly misleads consumers about the product or service will also be considered as misleading in nature.

The Central Consumer Protection Authority will regulate matters relating to violation of rights of consumers, unfair trade practices and false or misleading advertisements which are prejudicial to the interests of public and consumers to promote, protect and enforce the rights of consumers. This Authority shall be headquartered in the National Capital Region of Delhi and may have regional and other offices across India.

A complaint relating to any false or misleading advertisements may be forwarded either in writing or in electronic mode, to any one of the authorities, namely, the District Collector or the Commissioner of regional office or the Central Authority. After a preliminary enquiry is made, if the Central Authority is satisfied that a prima facie case exists, an investigation shall be conducted.

Where the Central Authority is satisfied after conducting the investigation that the advertisement for which a complaint is received is false or misleading and is prejudicial to the interest of any consumer or is in contravention of consumer rights, it may, by order, issue directions to the concerned trader or manufacturer or endorser or advertiser or publisher, as the case may be, to discontinue such advertisement or to modify the same in such manner and within such time as may be specified in that order. If the Central Authority is of the opinion that it is necessary to impose a penalty in respect of such false or misleading advertisement, by a manufacturer or an endorser, it may, by order, impose on manufacturer or celebrity endorser a penalty which may extend to Rs 10 lakh: Provided that the Central Authority may, for every subsequent contravention by a manufacturer or endorser, impose a penalty, which may extend to Rs 50 lakh. Additionally, where the Central Authority deems it necessary, it may, by order, prohibit the celebrity endorser of a false or misleading advertisement from making endorsement of any product or service for a period which may extend to one year: For every subsequent contravention, prohibit such endorser from making endorsement in respect of any product or service for a period which may extend to three years. Where the Central Authority is satisfied after conducting an investigation, that any person is found to publish, or is a party to the publication of a misleading advertisement, except in the ordinary course of his business,it may impose on such person a penalty which may extend to Rs 10 lakh. The defence that the false or misleading advertisement was published in the ordinary course of business shall not be available to such person if he had previous knowledge of the order passed by the Central Authority for withdrawal or modification of such advertisement.

In light of the newly introduced provisions under the Act, which came into force from July 20, 2020, it is advisable for both the advertisers and the endorsers to exercise caution in the claims that form part of the advertisement of the goods/ services. The ensuing Parts of the series will pertain to various aspects of what constitutes Misleading Advertising and key judicial precedents on the same.

Advocate Aazmeen Kasad is a practicing corporate advocate with over 20 years of experience, with a focus on the Media, Technology and Telecom industries. She is also a professor of law since 13 years. She is a member of the Consumer Complaints Council of the Advertising Standards Council of India. She is a speaker at several forums.

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