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 July 18 , 2003 




Consumed with Concern: Activists say poor conditions, ineffective law pose consumer risks


Don't be fooled by the packaging. "Lepton" may not be "Lipton.".

More than 60 percent of food products in Armenian markets are sold with overdue use by dates and some of them contain potential health risks, according to the recent research of the Armenian Union for the Protection of Consumers' Rights.

The president of the Union, Abgar Yeghoyan, says that the great amount of imported products in Armenia does not correspond to the standards of consumer rights, food safety and pose threats to the public health.

Many foreign products, for example, contain information only in the language of the country in which it was produced.
Some products made in Armenia do not include the date of production, including dairy products of some local producers.

"In Armenia despite an advanced law on consumer rights accepted in January 2002, the consumers are not protected. The most part of the law remains on paper and does not impact the processes in the market," Yeghoyan says.

Yeghoyan says that more than half of goods do not have appropriate quality certificates, indicative of a shadow economy.

"If all the goods exported and made in Armenia had certificates, the total sum of the taxes would be three times higher than it is now," Yeghoyan says.

Consumer rights activists say that the condition is, in part, a political problem.

In much of the free-market world, consumer concerns are represented by lobbyists and independent lawmakers. But in Armenia, enactment of laws that would tighten regulations must be passed in a Parliament made up largely of the very businessmen whose income might suffer from tougher consumer laws.

According to law, all goods made in Armenia or exported should pass through a laboratory control to reveal if they meet proper standards.

However Customs control deals with a small part of exported goods, and the rest appears in Armenian markets having gone unnoticed, without control.

The result is sometimes a hybrid product masquerading as something it isn't. For example: "Nescofe" coffee and "Lepton" tea.

A small bar of Turkish chocolate costs from 20 - 50 dram (about 5 to 10 cents) and is the most accessible kind of candy for most of the population.
Most of the goods of poor quality come from Turkey and Iran such as chocolate, powdered juices, chewing gum.
A one-cent product isn't necessarily a dollar-value just because of the wrapper.

Colon bacillus was discovered in Turkish powder juice "Zuko" and in "Toffita" candy during a laboratory examination initiated by the Union.

Both products are very popular in Armenia due to their low cost and the main consumers are children.

"The law on consumer rights limited the activity of public organizations," Yeghoyan says.

"According to the law the public organizations are not sanctioned to make laboratory examinations of the products. Actually we can do it but the results can not impact the situation as we are not authorized to call to account those people whose businesses bring a danger to the public health."

Another advocate for consumers' rights is the Quality Inspection of the Ministry of the Trade and Economic Development. Officials there say their activity is limited by the poor budget, small staff and imperfect law.

"According to the law the inspection can be made only once a year of the one grocery unit," says vice director Gevorg Gyozalan. "Besides, three days before, we have to present them the schedule of our work and can make inspection no longer than fourteen days."

The inspections check the certificates, which are supposed to be attached with each product.

If the product does not have the certificate the owner of the shop can be charged as much as 100,000 drams (about $170).

But the inspectors can go to the same place only once a year.

The article of the law is to protect the independence and interests of the entrepreneurs. But it does not have an effect for the consumers.

"There are 55 people in our office who make inspections throughout the Republic. And of course such a small staff can hardly do all the work" says the head of inspections Ashot Manukyan.

Recently the Quality Inspection department applied to the Government asking for more authority. But their proposals were not accepted by the National Assembly.

Officials from the inspection say that people blame them for the bad quality of products in Armenia. But inspectors say the problem with quality starts in Customs.

In most cases it starts in Sadakhlo, on the border of Armenia and Georgia, a major import station for products made in Russia, Turkey, Iran and other countries.
Abgar Yeghoyan leads a consumer rights advocacy group and lobbies for better restrictions on food products.

"All the products that enter Armenia go first to one of 84 laboratories. But they deal with the products of businessman who deliver to the republic tons of products," Manukyan says.

But the labs never see the tons brought by private travelers.

Each person coming into Armenia (usually by bus) is allowed 50 kilograms of goods. If they buy products abroad for re-selling in Armenia, the businessmen often pay others to share their baggage in order to avoid inspection. Hundreds of kilograms of candies and other products come into the country by such methods.

Manukyan says the situation is getting better and that each year the amount of poor-quality and potentially harmful goods is reduced.

"But in their turn our people have to be more attentive to what they buy and what they eat. We are the institution that protects consumer interest, but they can help us at least by not buying goods with overdue dates."

Manukyan says that he appreciates the efforts of consumer action groups, though he says they sometimes publish inaccurate information.

Both the Union for Protection of Consumers' Rights and the Quality Inspection department have publications on consumer issues and appear on TV and radio with consumer education programs. But both groups agree that the main problem is related to economic conditions that force many people to simply buy whatever is cheapest.


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