Judge orders Ribena to fess up

By David Eames

GlaxoSmithKline has been ordered to run an advertising campaign to provide the facts after it admitted misleading the public about the vitamin C component in its Ribena drink.

The multinational company, which had a worldwide turnover of $61 billion in 2005, was also fined $217,000 after pleading guilty to 15 breaches of the Fair Trading Act.

The number of charges was reduced from 88 and covered a period from March 2002 to March last year. GSK faced a maximum fine of just under $3 million.

Through its lawyer, Adam Ross, the company accepted Commerce Commission allegations that claims that ready-to-drink Ribena contained 7mg of vitamin C per 100ml, or 44 per cent of the recommended daily intake, were incorrect.

The commission's testing found that ready-to-drink Ribena contained no detectable vitamin C.

The company also agreed television advertising claiming the blackcurrants in Ribena had four times the vitamin C of oranges, while literally true, were likely to mislead consumers about the relative levels of vitamin C in Ribena.

GSK ran three misleading Ribena campaigns in the four-year period, totalling more than 1500 individual screenings.

Judge Phil Gittos, though describing the company's claims as "not just incorrect, but wholly false", stopped short of ordering GSK to mount a television campaign.

Instead, he ordered half-page corrective advertisements be taken out in the Saturday editions of the country's four main newspapers, the Weekend Herald, Dominion Post, the Press and the Otago Daily Times.

The advertisements - which must be approved by the court before publication - must run twice within the next 28 days, he said.

The prosecution was launched after two Pakuranga College students - Anna Devathasan and Jenny Suo - tested the vitamin C levels of their favourite juices for a 2004 science fair.

The then-14-year-olds took their findings to the Commerce Commission when their tests showed Ribena to be deficient in the vitamin.

The girls - who were in court for the start of yesterday's hearing - were last night pleased with the sentence handed down, but believed the company should have been ordered to run television advertisements as well.

The product had always been aimed at children and parents, who were more likely to see the advertisements on television than in a newspaper, Jenny Suo said.

Anna Devathasan said she believed yesterday's sentence was "a good ruling. They pleaded guilty and they got a punishment."

Commerce Commission chairwoman Paula Rebstock said the case should alert other businesses to the importance of ensuring that product claims were accurate.

"Companies should be monitoring the quality of the products they are selling, and if they find or suspect their product is not meeting the claims made, they must act immediately to correct the problem and inform consumers."

Thousands of New Zealanders had been misled by GSK's Ribena claims, Ms Rebstock said.

"By the time Ribena undertakes the corrective advertising that's been ordered and have to take into account the reputation damage that's been done to the company, I think a fairly high price will have been paid in the end.

"The brand has been built up over many years over that point of difference and they've just lost all the value that they've invested in that brand for a decade.

"They didn't say the Ribena did [have the vitamin], but that's very careful wording, isn't it? Most consumers would think that means this drink has."

GSK did not comment on the sentencing, or whether it would appeal against the ruling.

The company said it had revised all advertising to ensure there were no misleading vitamin C claims, removed references to vitamin C on Ribena, and introduced a new regime to test vitamin levels in ready-to-drink products.

"We sincerely regret any confusion to customers who feel they may have been misled."

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