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All Eyes on Advertising Watchdog Amidst 'Purity' Claims & Counter-Claims over Honey

The Advertising Standards Council of India Awaits Response from Dabur on a complaint filed by rival Marico, after a report by The Centre of Science and Environment’s (CSE’s) on the alleged adulteration of honey by eminent brands in India, led to two of the homegrown FMCG giants, Dabur & Marico, exchange blows, who together account for a massive INR 800 crore business in the branded honey segment

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The battle over the 'purity' of honey may soon be turning bitter between Marico and Dabur, the two leading FMCG brands reportedly accounting for Rs 800 crore branded honey segment out of the estimated size of Rs 1,500 crore. Both players are said to have complained before the advertising watchdog—Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI)—challenging the 'purity' and 'testing' claims by the other.

Even before the report by the Centre of Science and Environment (CSE) came out with its investigative findings of leading Indian FMCG brands allegedly adulterating honey with "syrup" and yet passing the tests laid down by the FSSAI, Marico had filed complaints before ASCI (first in October 2020) questioning the ‘NMR tested pure honey’ claim by Dabur for its product 'Dabur Honey'. The claim ‘NMR tested’ was considered false by the council and misleading by implication and omission and upheld under Chapter 1.4 of the ASCI Code.

Further in December 2020, Marico again filed a complaint before ASCI, challenging the claim made by ‘Dabur India Ltd.’ that ‘Dabur Honey had passed the German NMR test’. The complaint was admitted by ASCI and taken on record for further hearing. Marico Spokesperson said, “We have now filed a new complaint before ASCI on December 03, 2020, against Dabur’s recent misleading claims that 'Dabur honey has passed the German NMR test' and that it is 'Source NMR tested'. ASCI has accepted the complaint and fixed the matter for hearing before it’s the expert panel. Several attempts have been made since the launch, against all principles of fair play, by challenging genuine claims of Saffola Honey and all such attempts have failed so far. We would like to believe that ultimately the test of purity and the trust in a brand will be decided by our discerning consumers in the market. No batch of Saffola honey has ever been found to be adulterated with added sugar or sugar syrup.”

We also spoke to the Secretary-General of ASCI, Manisha Kapoor, on the above matter. She said, “We have received a complaint from Marico, which is currently being processed. We are awaiting the advertiser's (Dabur) response for claim substantiation. The complaint and the data received from the advertiser will be taken up for examination by the Consumer Complaints Council early next week.”

In response to Marico’s claims, Dabur notified ASCI about filing a complaint against Marico, pointing that Marico Saffola Honey in the market failed to pass the NRM test. “Dabur is filing a complaint in ASCI against Marico as their Saffola Honey sample from the market has failed the NMR test. Test reports clearly indicate the presence of sugar syrup in Saffola honey. Their claim on NMR test is misleading the consumers," comments a Dabur spokesperson.

He further adds, "The Food Safety & Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) clarification on December 3, 2020, has clearly reinforced that their 22 mandatory tests, including specific test like SMR, are the most stringent tests globally to detect all the potential adulterants and sugar in honey.

Dabur has cleared all the above FSSAI-mandated tests, including SMR, besides voluntarily conducting NMR test periodically to ensure that our consumers get 100% Pure honey with no added sugar/syrups or any other adulterants."

Talking of Dabur’s complaint, Kapoor shares, “We have also received intimation from Dabur regarding a complaint they would like to register, however, we are yet to receive a formal complaint. ASCI will process the complaint once it is received.”

We also reached out to another homegrown honey brand in India, Apis Honey, which too has been in the business for decades. The brand refuted the results of the CSE report saying, “As an organization, we believe in principles and follow all the government rules and procedures. Apis Honey adheres to all the necessary norms laid by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) and the Government, be it for domestic supply or export. We also want to inform our consumers that our products are genuine without any adulteration. We don’t agree with the results of the CSE report.”

Well, it is not a first that such revelations in the honey segment have been made. In 2018, FSSAI carried out ‘authenticity tests’ (on the presence of C4 sugars, quality, safety & acceptability parameters) on 10 honey brands in India. As a rule, C4 sugars should make up no more than 7%. Except for Zandu, it was found that none of the other honey brands conformed to the C4 sugar requirements. Worse yet, none of the brands fully met the other quality requirements set by FSSAI for purity & authenticity.

Owing to the pandemic, the surge in sales of honey from Dabur, Emami, Apis, Patanjali, etc. reached a high double-digit growth in the past six months. Surely, the dispute between both brands has damaged its brand image and credibility. It is for them to aggressively advertise now to win back the consumer trust when the demand for honey is at a crowning point.