Ribena-maker fined $217,500 for misleading vitamin C ads

GlaxoSmithKline, the maker of Ribena, has been fined $217,500 after admitting it mislead customers about the vitamin C content of the blackcurrant drink.

The company appeared in Auckland District Court to face charges alleging 15 breaches of the Fair Trading Act.

It admitted that its cartoned Ready To Drink Ribena, which it claimed had 7mg of Vitamin C per 100ml, in fact had no detectable Vitamin C content.

The company also admitted it may have misled customers in advertisements saying the blackcurrants in Ribena syrup had four times the Vitamin C of oranges.

In court this afternoon, Judge Phil Gittos fined GlaxoSmithKline and ordered the company to place half-page corrective advertisements in the Herald, Dominion Post, the Press and Otago Daily Times.

He said the advertisements' wording needed court approval and would have to run at least twice within the next month.

But the judge stopped short of ordering a television campaign because it had been a year since the misleading advertisements had run.

He said publicity of the story through television news coverage would be enough.

The Commerce Commission had pushed for a fine between $275,000 and $350,000 and corrective television advertising. Glaxosmithkline wanted a fine of about $60,000 and no corrective television advertising.

The charges, brought by the Commerce Commission, arose from an investigation by Pakuranga College students Anna Devathasan and Jenny Suo into the vitamin C levels of the popular Ribena drink, which has sales of about $8 million a year.

The girls were in Auckland District Court today when the charges were admitted.

GSK has a worldwide turnover of more than $61 billion, second only to drug giant Pfizer.

The students found the claimed levels of the vitamin were not correct.

Lawyers for the company told the court it had not deliberately misled the public and it had now changed its testing procedures.

The students - now 17 - decided in mid-2004 to test the vitamin C levels of their favourite juices, including Ribena, Just Juice and Arano, for a school project.

They calculated that each 100ml of Ribena contained about 22mg of vitamin C.

Just Juice products contained levels of about 72mg.

The figure for Ribena seemed too low, particularly as the company had promoted the product by claiming that blackcurrants had four times the vitamin C of oranges.

The girls at first got short shrift when they took their observations to GlaxoSmithKline.

In a letter, the girls described its advertising as "intentionally misleading and quite inappropriate".

When they got no response, they telephoned the company but again received no reply.

Undeterred, the girls contacted the Advertising Standards Authority, and Brandpower, but still got no satisfaction.

But then the television consumer affairs show Fair Go picked up the story and suggested the girls take their findings to the Commerce Commission.

The pair put the matter out of their minds, until the prosecution made the news about a month ago.

GSK's TV advertisements claimed "the blackcurrants in Ribena have four times the vitamin C of oranges". The commission said that although blackcurrants had more vitamin C than oranges, the same was not true of Ribena.

It also alleged its testing found ready-to-drink Ribena contained no detectable level of vitamin C.

The girls' discoveries have also scored a hit in Australia.

GSK Australia last week dobbed itself into the Australian equivalent of the Commerce Commission, admitting it had been misleading in its Ribena claims.

The case

* Testing found ready-to-drink Ribena contains no detectable vitamin C.

* The Commerce Commission said television advertising claims about the amount of vitamin C in Ribena were misleading.

- NEWSTALK ZB, NZPA, NZHERALD STAFF

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