Imitation products: where to draw the line?

24 Nov 2015

Earlier this year I noticed a commercial for concentrated syrup in a bottle with a dispensing pump: interesting, different, distinguishing! But… at the same time I had a different thought: “doesn’t this look a lot like those dispensing pumps for liquid soap?”

As part of my work at the NVC Netherlands Packaging Centre I dig into the various European packaging laws on a regular basis, and in this case the Dutch law for safe packaging of household chemicals (Warenwetbesluit veilige verpakking huishoudchemicaliën) came to mind. Soap can hardly be considered a dangerous substance – it is unlikely somebody will be seriously harmed by drinking a cup of lemonade that was accidentally made with soap – but I still decided to look into the case. The law clearly states that it is not allowed to use packaging for household chemicals that can confuse the users about the nature of the product, or that has the shape of food packaging. But how does it work the other way around?

It turns out another piece of EU legislation is even more relevant for this case: the Council Directive 87/357/EEC of 25 June 1987 on the approximation of the laws of the Member States concerning products which, appearing to be other than they are, endanger the health or safety of consumers. This old, compact piece of EU legislation is particularly relevant, because it is also mentioned in the new cosmetic products regulation (Regulation (EC) No 1223/2009 on cosmetic products, Article 3). Liquid soap can be considered a cosmetic product. Through this regulation it is a legal requirement for cosmetic products that they do not “possess a form, odour, colour, appearance, packaging, labelling, volume or size, such that it is likely that consumers, especially children, will confuse them with foodstuffs and in consequence place them in their mouths, or suck or ingest them, which might be dangerous and cause, for example, suffocation, poisoning, or the perforation or obstruction of the digestive tract.” Again, this applies to the case that food packaging would be used to pack non-food products, not the other way around. 

In the case of using something that closely resembles a soap dispenser for a food product like concentrated syrup, there does not appear to be any legislation that prevents this. The soap producers were clearly first to market with this type of packaging, but could this theoretically lead to the situation where in the future this type of dispenser will not be allowed for liquid soap anymore, because it can be confused with concentrated syrup for making soft drink? I wonder if this possibility has been considered at all. It is possible the syrup dispenser will become a big success, just like the soap dispenser has become in its own product category. Who draws the line, and where? In the NVC Course Programme in Packaging the NVC teaches you to create a good overview of all the processes involved in packaging, including all the legislation, which helps you to consider all the possible consequences of changes to your packaging.

Ger Standhardt, manager Knowledge Development & Projects at the NVC Netherlands Packaging Centre.

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