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Woolworths complaint sparks label, trade probe

| Legislation

The National Consumer Commission (NCC) has launched an industry-wide investigation into labelling and trade descriptions following false labelling allegations against Woolworths.

Without naming Woolworths NCC commissioner Ebrahim Mohamed on Thursday confirmed its investigation followed "a complaint by a consumer in November 2014 from a consumer alleging unclear country of origin labelling of fruits that were sold by a certain retailer".

According to a document in Fin24's possession detailing the complaint the consumer details two incidents of incorrect labelling at two different Woolworths stores.

The first incident was at a store in Durban in January 2014 where she claimed oranges she had intended to buy had been marked off with a marker.

The consumer alleged that the original labelling (marked off) indicated that the oranges were from Israel, while the label said they originated from Spain.

The second incident was at Woolworths in Gateway in August 2014, where she allegedly found that punnets of cut fruits in their "pick of the season" range had two different labels regarding the country of origin. The fruits contained South African and Israeli labels.

The consumer laid a complaint over both matters in November 2014, demanding Woolworths be fined for purposely defrauding customers and that the proceeds be donated to charity.

"How was it possible for Woolworths to price the imported mangoes the same as the South African mangoes?" she asked the NCC in her complaint.

The document shows that the complaint was referred to the Consumer Goods and Services Ombud (CGSO) and escalated to investigation for further intervention.

According to the document the consumer was informed in August this year of the escalation.

Mohamed said on Thursday the NCC after assessing the complaint for jurisdiction in terms of the Consumer Protection Act referred the matter to the Consumer Goods and Services Ombudsman for mediation.

The matter was referred back to the NCC earlier this year for further handling and resolution.

In an emailed response Woolworths told Fin24 that the NCC had informed it of a formal investigation "in terms of the Consumer Protection Act relating to product labelling".

Woolworths, however, said it had not received any complaints from the NCC relating to Israeli products.

"The country of origin is clearly indicated on product labelling as required by legislation," Woolworths said.

Mohamed said he wished to clarify the fact that the NCC’s investigation was not into false Israeli labelling by Woolworths, but rather a much broader industry-wide investigation focusing on labelling and trade descriptions by retailers, including Woolworths.

“I am also most perturbed by the publication on social media and other platforms of confidential, internal documents of the NCC, which has the potential to undermine our work,” he said.

NCC spokesperson Trevor Hattingh told Fin24 in an emailed response that "the NCC early this month served Woolworths with an investigation certificate in terms of section (88)(3) of the Consumer Protection Act, thereby notifying them of the investigation and requesting their cooperation".

Hattingh confirmed that the investigation followed a complaint "received by a consumer about alleged incorrect labelling of agricultural produce".

The NCC has since launched an industry-wide investigation into labelling and trade descriptions for agricultural produce, said Hattingh.

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