- Independent Journalism From Today's Armenia
 November 7 , 2003 

Buyer Beware: Activists say few know their consumer rights and few laws protect them

Abgar Yeghoyan is sure that the consumers are passive in protecting their rights.

When Anahit Soghomonyan returned to her Yerevan neighborhood food store with a box of soured milk and demanding a refund, the response she got was: "Is it worth making so much noise because of 300 drams, lady? You'd better buy a fresh one, we just got it".

"First I demanded that they call the manager, but the sellers were exchanging whispers indifferently and were looking at me. They never understood that the reason is not the 300 drams but the insult of being cheated, and the protection of my rights," says Soghomonyan. "It took me about two and a half hours to be able to at least take the money back, and it only happened because the sellers were tired of my presence."

The President of the Union of Consumer Rights Armen Poghosyan is sure that if in some cases the rights of the consumers are often being violated in Armenia, in other aspects the consumers are passive in protecting their own rights.

Chief sanitary doctor of the Republic Vladimir Davidyants says that time after time they admonish people to be careful when they're buying food products, but their words stay hanging in the air.

"They're selling meat and cheese of unknown origin in the street and people buy it since they're unaware, they have no idea of what they're buying, what choice they're making," says Davidyants. "They can get tuberculosis, anthrax, brucellosis and anything else, but still they buy things from the same place. Many say it's because of bad social conditions that people buy cheap and bad quality products, but the awareness of people has to be high enough for them to realize the damage they can cause to their health by a 50 drams (about nine cents) difference."

"Besides the social factor, the consumer today is unaware of his rights," says Poghosyan. "While buying products very few look at the shelf life, the composition and the information about the manufacturer."

Poghosyan assures that regular research into the issue does not raise consumer-rights activists' hopes.

"Mainly we examine those products that are being sold at cheap stores, since they are more likely to be of bad quality and dangerous," says Poghosyan. "As a result over 70 percent of the products have various types of dangerous deviations such as wrong inscriptions, wrong storage conditions, expired shelf life. However, those products remain there and the consumers each time cause considerable harm to their health."

Abgar Yeghoyan, president of the Union for the Protection of Consumers' Rights says products with expired shelf life are a usual phenomenon in stores of Armenia.

"Recently, I went into a store where they were selling some food in boxes called Vietnamese breakfast and its shelf life has expired two years ago," says Yeghoyan. "An unaware child may buy that product and the result can be disastrous."

According to Yeghoyan a significant part of products imported into Armenia do not correspond to safety standards and are a threat to the health of society.

Yeghoyan says that beginning April of this year five organizations protecting consumer rights have formed a coalition, as a result of which occasional monitoring is being held in Yerevan and Lori and Vayots Dzor regions.

"As a result of that, out of 34 products in Armenia, 19 had intestinal bacillus, " Yeghoyan says. "Those microbes do not exist in food products by themselves; they initially appear in case of absence of sanitary and hygienic conditions, while the given product is being produced."

Over 70 percent of the products sold in cheap stores have various types of dangerous deviations and expired shelf life.

Yeghoyan says that the majority of products were imported mainly from Turkey or Iran.

"I cannot say whether they were among products of such origin on purpose or not," says Yeghoyan. "But it is certain that they are a big threat and each day they harm many people."

According to specialists on consumer rights protection one of the main reasons for poor control of food products is a lack of legislation. The majority of such products are imported into Armenia through Bagratashen or through markets bordering Meghri without being checked. According to current law up to 50 kilos and a value of $500 may be brought into the country without an inspection certificate.

Yeghoyan says that if there were a correspondence certificate, it would become possible to find the importer who brings in all the dangerous products and also it would become possible to find the source and create safety precautions.

However, according to him in Armenia there is no structure of confiscating expired and dangerous foodstuff.

And if an organization or even the government finds something dangerous, there's nothing they can do and everything mainly remains in its place. In the best case a seller can be fined for selling low quality products or he can be told not to sell here and afterwards the same product will be sold somewhere else and that's it. In this case it turns out to be advantageous for certain people who import cheap expired products and sell them here with normal prices and no obstacles.

"In such cases the state can do nothing and doesn't have any desire to. In many cases we can see the pride with which tax services destroy several boxes of cigarettes with no excise, or break vodka bottles, however low quality foodstuff, that can cause serious damage, is out of this struggle," says Yeghoyan.

"I don't know my rights," says Yerevan resident Laura Harutyunyan. "I don't know what I can do to be protected and to protect my family members. I don't know what I should pay attention to while choosing products not to buy low quality or fake production. Who should I demand my rights of?"

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