CHINA - After a popular hotpot chain admitted to using concentrated hotpot soup and beverages, lawyers and consumer-rights experts said the restaurant's concealment of its product information violates consumers' right to know.
"If businesses sedulously hide information from customers, they can be suspected of committing fraud in particularly serious cases," said Qiu Baochang, head of the lawyers group for the China Consumers Association.
Experts began to raise doubts about the chain restaurant after reports came out saying employees there were instructed to avoid telling customers that they sell soups and drinks made from concentrate.
"One way to encroach on consumers' right to know is to give them incomplete information," said Yi Shenghua, a Beijing-based lawyer at Yingke Law Firm. "In other words, a business only talks about what is to its advantage and holds back other information from customers."
Yi said information about consumable products should be easily available. The only exception should be made for information about businesses' intellectual property.
A reporter from City Sun, a Shandong-based newspaper, who disguised his identity so he could take part in the training given to new workers at the restaurant chain was instructed to avoid telling customers about the composition of the soup they serve.
They are instead to reply: "Sorry, I don't have any idea. Please go to the counter to ask about that."
Sichuan Haidilao Catering Co Ltd, admitted on Monday that its hotpot soup and beverages are made from concentrate.
"But all of the concentrate comes from qualified suppliers and all of our operation are run in accordance with laws and regulations," the company said in a statement on its website.
A statement that appeared on the website on Tuesday said employees are forbidden to answer customers' questions because they may each give a different reply.
"To prevent misunderstandings, we have placed brochures giving a complete introduction to the composition of our food products and related certificates at the counter of every restaurant," the statement said. "And we train employees to not directly reply to customers' questions."
Other questions were raised about Unilever, a maker of many food and drink products.
The company was accused of placing confusing messages on its packages for its bouillon products, some of which was removed from shelves after complaints arose over a label that said, "This product may contain wheat, soybeans, eggs, dairy products and fish".
Unilever said on its website that the word "may" was used in accordance with international practices and China's standards. It said the label was meant as a warning to consumers who are allergic to certain substances.
Experts on food safety and food packaging said the uproar was probably a result of the public's unfamiliarity with allergy alerts.
"If they rewrote the alert to say 'Those who are allergic to fish should be cautious about eating this', it would be easier to understand," said Dong Jinshi, a food safety expert and executive vice-president of the International Food Packaging Association.