Friday, 6 February 2009

What standards should the government concern itself with?

In a previous post I identified 3 principles from Amos that merchants should take note of when trading. They were:
  1. Accurate labelling
  2. Clear agreed price
  3. Not passing off refuse for merchandise
One could argue that the third is a variation on the first.

How can we apply this to our current culture? Let's consider how salesmen may abuse these principles in the West.

Inaccurate labelling

This is difficult to do because of current law but examples could include:
  • Jimmied scales
  • Misquoting house or land area

Unclear agreed price

This is also difficult to do because our money does not have intrinsic value. Ignoring the prudence, or lack thereof, of this policy, this means that the value of cash in a single transaction is not usually disputed. There are however several actions which I think abuse the principle of agreed price. These are when there is an added cost that is not immediately apparent such as:
  • Additional transaction costs
  • Excluding sales tax
  • Postage and packaging, especially when the item cannot be purchased without paying this and when the amount does not correspond to the true cost

Refuse for merchandise

I think there are several examples of these that currently occur
  • Cars involved in previous undisclosed accidents
  • Functionless fuel additives
  • Liquid in food
  • Air in food
  • Sick livestock

Including these principles in law

Many of these issues can be avoided thru enforced labelling. This gives people relevant information on a product. It is hard for an individual to consider every product. This is why a Ministry of Standards is useful, they can research such things. The important thing is that people get what is agreed to. These are my introductory thoughts.
Foodstuffs
All food should be sold subject to weight or volume. Foods that are solid at room temperature should have weight included. Liquids at room temperature should be volumes. One could consider the addition of weight or volume based on the temperature sold at, so for some items both weight and volume would be required, i.e. frozen liquids.

All food labels should include a moisture content and air content (if relevant). If water is added it should be listed as an ingredient. Note that there may be nothing wrong with including water and air in food. Air makes for texture in ice cream and other desserts. Adequate labelling, such as selling ice cream by weight in preference to volume discourages abuse of this process.

Energy and macroingredients (fat, protein, carbohydrates, moisture) should be included on all labels. I am not certain if ingredient lists should be mandatory by law but as a consumer this is my personal preference.
Machinery and electronics
Objects should be assessed for relevant function. The attributes that contribute significantly to this function should be mandatory for labelling and an independent definitions should be used.

Objects that are not fully functional without additional items or purchases need to be clearly labelled.

It seems somewhat reasonable to specify expected lifetime of the equipment under normal use. It would be difficult for this to be enforced for individual items but appropriate for state prosecution if the majority of items fail prior to the specified lifetime.
Medications
Strength and range of strengths for individual doses should be noted. Example 50 mg (48–54 mg). Non-existent accuracy should not be implied by several significant figures for dosing. Side effects (absolute greater than placebo) should be documented to a set frequency, eg. 1%. Though serious events may need to be documented to a lower frequency.

Claims of benefit with no comparative studies can be made but mention of this should be required. Example: May aid sleep, no controlled studies comparing to placebo available.

What constitutes a medication versus a supplement and who should be allowed to prescribe presents a much larger question and probably fits the domain of a broad Medicine Act rather than a Standards Act.
Second hand items
This will depend on the item but a list of relevant disclosures could be mandatory. This is currently the case in this country with vehicles, probably because of their cost and previous abuses.
Pricing
All costs must be disclosed on saleable item. Quoting price with a disclaimer mentioning exclusions of unspecified costs should be forbidden. Granted sales tax goes to government and not to the business, but the customer still has to pay this figure. Quoting full price with the disclaimer "includes a sales tax of $x" is acceptable.

Exceptions may exist for international transactions where sales tax and postage will depend on the customers destination, though this could be easily addressed.

Caution

As mentioned in previous posts, this is about information the consumer needs to make an appropriate decision, it is not about setting what the minimum standard should be. One can insist that paper is labelled by the density (mass per square meter) without specifying what density paper should be sold at.

I also think that in general enforcement should be at the level of government rather than individual. Individuals fighting corporations in the courts are usually at a disadvantage. Individuals can choose to argue their case thru the courts if they wish, but bringing the matter to a regulatory body should be sufficient. It is too time consuming for an individual to fight over a few dollars, but worthwhile for a company. Because such episodes are unlikely to be isolated, a regulatory body would have powers to enforce appropriate action (relabelling products) and an appropriate fine if necessary.

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