VEGA News Item

Challenging Big Pharma is Kids’ Stuff to Anzacs. GSK Surrender over Ribena - 13/08/2007
GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), one of the biggest food and drugs companies, has been fined NZ$ 227,500 (£83,333) for making misleading claims over vitamin C levels in Ribena...

GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), one of the biggest food and drugs companies, has been fined NZ$ 227,500 (£83,333) for making misleading claims over vitamin C levels in Ribena. GSK had claimed that Ribena syrup contained 4 times more vitamin C than oranges, but in 2004 two high-school students carried out tests in a science lesson and found that levels of the nutrient in the product were “much lower” (The Grocer 31 March 2007).

The 14-year-old students had tested the blackcurrant cordial in 2004 against rival brands in school experiments and comparisons. They found “almost no vitamin C” (The Guardian 27 March 2007) in ready-to-drink Ribena, whereas another brand’s orange juice contained “almost 4 times more”. The students, Anna Devathasan and Jenny Suo, were studying at Packuranga College in Auckland, New Zealand.

“The blackcurrants in Ribena have 4 times the vitamin C of oranges” run advertising claims for the beverage, so the perplexed students wrote to GSK for an explanation. Their first letter received no response, but they persisted by phone. They were given short shrift: their enquiries received only vague answers. However, a TV consumer affairs program, Fair Go, took up the story, recommending reference of the results to the Commerce Commission, a government watchdog.

The government body upheld the students’ finding and interpretations, confirming that ready-to-drink Ribena contained no detectable level of vitamin C, although blackcurrants have more vitamin C than oranges. As a result GSK found themselves in Auckland on 27 March facing 15 charges relating to misleading advertising and risking fines of up to NZ$3m (£1.1m). They actually incurred a lower penalty, but the firm’s corporate responsibility and reputation had been dealt a severe blow.

In Australia GSK has admitted that its claim about Ribena “may have misled consumers”: the Australian competition and consumer commission states that nutrition claims on the panel of Ribena’s ready-to-drink carton implying that the products “had 4 times the vitamin C of orange juice drinks” were “not correct”. The girls have since visited GSK to be thanked for “bringing the issue to our attention”.

GSK stated on 26th March 2007 that the concerns applied only to some products in Australia and New Zealand. “Thorough laboratory testing” has confirmed that Ribena drinks in all other markets, including the UK, contain the stated levels of vitamin C, as described on product labels”.

VEGA says: Congratulations to the antipodean students, teaching bodies and consumer campaigners display an impressive example of competent learning and practice in elements of good citizenship. How many British schoolchildren, teachers, or customers scrutinize information on labels?

Such vigilance on a day-to-day basis is essential as the FSA tackles public misunderstandings over definitions of fruit (and vegetable) juices, concentrates, drinks, cordials… In the contexts of 5-a-day initiatives, labelling, and treatment for VAT purposes of such products to be divided into categories such as confectionery or foods, manufacturers of smoothies resent having to bear VAT, as applied to the junk categories; some manufacturers are selling milk beverages containing full fruit juices (and soya milks may be used in this function). Freshly pressed oranges with plenty of pith in the mush may nearly attain portion status in the 5-a-day style. Clarified juices may be filtered with (undisclosed, but objectionable to veggies) finings, and concentrated apple juice from Israel may be made up for sale with potable water from anywhere in Europe with a fluoride content that may upset some people. More information on labels is needed. And much more clamouring for details by canny consumers for responses from retailers and manufacturers is needed too.

GSK’s Monday Manifesto for the Times (2nd April 2007) has the firm’s chief executive, Jean-Pierre Garnier, defending GSK’s reputation in international initiatives, e.g. with the WHO over vaccines for bird flu and many other scourges, such as malaria and tuberculosis, tackled on a non-profitable basis. He wants the GSK’s group’s efforts “to benefit everybody, rich and poor”. His record of achievements does not mention Ribena.

GSK has been severely trounced over the Ribena matter. Like Sunny Delight, which is now almost defunct, Ribena has had a chequered carreer with labelling authorities and sponsoring organisations. The episode illustrates how giant pharma companies can get involved in the food industry and become discredited in all contexts.

Glaxo began as an outlet in the UK for powdered milk form New Zealand with baby foods prominent in their application, especially as the nutritional aspects of rickets and vitamin D gave it added prominence and introduction to medical matters just before WW2. The war found Britain’s pharmaceutical industry wanting, as had happened before WW1, especially in regard to the great German companies. Cooperation with American enterprises during the war and afterwards elevated Glaxo to the “ethical” status of the international pharmaceutical houses, which enjoyed many of the benefits, commercial and charitable, vested in the medical endeavours by benefactors and entrepreneurs with Quaker and Jewish persuasions.

Glaxo retired from the milk industry, recognizing a reluctance to distract from campaigns for breast-feeding and edged to nutritional and medical matters with unobjectionable connotations. It still has not outlived the advertising one-liner Glaxo Builds Bonny Babies. Complan is better regarded, as well as factors such as vitamin B12 and thyroxine that could be generated from non-animal sources.

Research and development of antibiotics took Glaxo into competition with Beecham’s, disdained by some at the time for its commercial sales of over-the-counter pills, “quack” medicines and toiletries. Beecham’s bid for a “merger” with Glaxo nearly succeeded; then a series of take-overs by both and other parties led to GSK, in which Beecham’s name had been lost, but not all of its commercial dealings. So Glaxo has inherited with Smith, Kline, and French activities it once derided. The activities of Big Pharma and its influences on health services and policies and this into areas of nutrition and supplementation take the Glaxo name into areas of enterprise the firm once firmly disdained. The Ribena incident is a serious blow to business “ethics”.

There is now talk of GSK selling off the remnants of the old Beecham catalogue of pills, potions, toiletries, and tonics and the embarrassments they bring to firms boasting competence in real R and D in the stiff competition it has to contend with in the scientifically-based international pharmaceutical industry.

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