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Thursday, October 2, 2014

Wednesday, June 11, 2008
OP-ED

Vittachi
Only in Asia
By Nury Vittachi

How to sell locust beans and seaweed to kids

MY wife bought a box of "Fruit By The Foot" strawberry snacks. From the package, one might assume it would contain foot-long (30 cm) snacks made of strawberries.

Wrong. It turned out to contain strips of dyed sugar. Nothing remotely strawberryish was listed on the list of ingredients. However, it did contain locust beans and seaweed.

I imagine that the manufacturer, Betty Crocker, must have come up with the product and then test-marketed it: "Hey, kids, wanna try a yummy locust bean and seaweed snack?"

Getting the thumbs down, they used classic business strategy known as Call It Something Else and came up with "strawberry."

I asked a nutritionist friend how food companies could get away with this sort of thing. She pointed out that Betty Crocker was American and thus more heavily regulated than Asian food firms.

Until now. This year, most Asian states are making laws about what labels can and cannot say.

Not before time. Some Asian products have labels which are just plain baffling, as my diaries show:

Seen on a Japanese carton of diary products: "Boy cow milk."

Seen on a pack of Chinese aubergines: "Violent Eggplants."

Seen on a Hong Kong pack of chilled chicken: "Four-Legged Chicken."

Law drafters in Asia are focusing on packaging that makes specific health claims.

One package of Japanese coffee has this on the label: "Black coffee has great features which other coffees have never had: Non-sugar."

A bottle of health tonic from mainland China has this claim: "Known to cure itching, colds, stomachs, brains, and other diseases."

From India, a reader showed me a packet of Holy Miracle Cow Dung. Which just goes to show that food company claims are sometimes quite literally a load of bull.

While researching this topic, I noticed that many food makers use the classic business technique known as Marketing to the Terminally Stupid.

For example, most chocolate products boast about how much cocoa they have. But Nutella, a chocolate hazelnut spread, has a big tick on the label next to the words "only 7.6 percent cocoa."

Buy a can of Coke and you find the calorie count per serving in a neat little table on the side. But only when you read the small print do you see that each can is said to contain "1.88 servings." This would make sense if the average customer bought a can, poured out just under half of it into his glass, and then poured the rest of the can into a separate glass for someone else, and then rushed back to the shop to get another can to fill up the second glass.

Dear Coca-Cola Company, I don't do this. Does that make me weird?

(Don't answer that.)

The nutritionist told me candy bars were always made with an odd number of chunks, to prevent parents sharing one between two kids. I checked in my local shop. It was true: every chocolate bar had five chunks.

Anyway, among the new food labeling laws in Asia is one which requires all perishable items (with the exception of members of the Chinese politburo) to be clearly stamped with a "sell by" date.

Some have already started. However, I'm not sure that Asian food manufacturers really "get it." On my shelf I have a bottle of Chinese medicine which says: "Expiration Date: 2 years."

Er, from when?

For jokes which should have expired, check out our columnist's website: www.vittachi.com.

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