The controversy over unsafe SK-II cosmetics produced by Procter & Gamble (Japan) Co. showed little sign of abating this weekend, with industry experts warning quality inspection loopholes were putting customers at risk.
Withdrawing its SK-II products and shutting its 96 sales counters, customers expressed anger, as well as confusion about the overall safety of cosmetics. "Who should be responsible for our loss?" one consumer asked.
"My skin was sore for several days after I used their eye cream. I made a request for a refund days ago, but it was not answered. There is no way that the brand can just withdraw from the market and give customers no compensation," said a middle-aged female consumer in Beijing surnamed Hu.
Hu's anger was echoed by thousands of SK-II customers across the country, especially after the brand suspended all refunds last Friday. Over the weekend, there were reports that P&G's Chinese website had been hacked and clashes broke out at several outlets.
Law experts believe the incident reflects loopholes in the country's Law on the Protection of Consumer Rights. "The current law states that the producer should be responsible for consumers once the products have been proved harmful to their physical health," Qiu Baochang, a senior lawyer in consumer rights with Beijing-based Huijia Lawfirm, told China Daily, adding that in more ambiguous cases, especially those that have not caused obvious harm to customers, the law does not clearly hold the producer liable for refunds.
Qiu suggested that the law be modified swiftly for the maximum benefit of the consumers. On the other hand, Qiu reminded consumers not to believe without scrutiny what has been promised in advertisements. "Many adverts just exaggerate the effect of the products. Customers should use common sense," said Qiu.
"I will never use an SK-II product again," said Hu, "and I will never be duped by those exaggerating advertisements."
According to public relations experts, the company's poor PR moves could overshadow the test results themselves.
"It is an international norm that, when facing a brand crisis, the company should first face up to the facts positively," Cheng Shi'an, dean of the Advertising Department of Fudan University, was quoted as saying in Shanghai-based Orient Morning Post.
"But P&G is doing the opposite. The company, at the very beginning, rejected a fact already confirmed by the country's quality authority. But they could not provide further evidence during the following days to prove itself on the issue," according to Cheng. "Meanwhile, the company has set obstacles in the refunding process. It is obviously not a goodwill decision as the company has claimed."
An ongoing poll by Sina.com, one of the country's most popular websites, shows that 98.8 percent of 143,774 respondents say they will never buy SK-II products again with most blaming the country's quality inspection authorities for their dereliction of duty.
"I read that the brand hasn't been inspected for eight years since its entrance into the Chinese market in 1998. If that is true, it would be a great mistake made by the country's quality authorities," said Li Ying, a 31-year-old journalist who used to be a fan of SK-II products.
Some experts also say there are defects in the inspection system, highlighting that inspections only look for heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury and lead in cosmetics, Yan Shixiang, an expert with the cosmetics commission under the All-China Federation of Industry of Commerce, was quoted as saying by the Beijing-based newspaper China Business.
Chromium and Neodymium are not listed for regular inspection allowing the two chemicals to have been neglected for a long time, said Yan. Chromium, a metal which can lead to instant whitening of the skin, has been the focus of the SK-II dispute.
Meanwhile, Yan also believes that the country's procedure for licensing sales of imported cosmetics is problematic. "A product is licensed based on samples. But this inspection is loose and ineffective, which creates loopholes," said Yan, adding that unlike many countries, China does not force producers to fully list all ingredients on a product's label.
A new twist developed in Hong Kong this weekend as two media organizations separately sampled popular foundation and powder products and took them to Hong Kong Standards and Testing Center. The results were damning. Clinique, Estee Lauder, Christian Dior, Max Factor, Lancome, Shiseido, the roster of chromium-containing cosmetics manufacturers reads like an industry Who's Who, with the ratio of chromium sometimes being higher than SK-II..
The Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department on Saturday announced its test results on nine SK-II samples. The samples were found to contain chromium but are still safe for use, according to the department.
Beauty store chain Sa Sa, a mecca for mainland cosmetics shoppers, said affected products have already been taken off the shelf. The company is yet to calculate the impact on sales.
(China Daily September 25, 2006)