PRICES of food and drinks became a sour point for consumers during the Covid-19 pandemic.
This was shown when the number of consumer complaints about the prices of food, drinks and controlled items spiked by 22.5% last year compared with the previous year. From 3,703 complaints in 2019, the number rose to 4,535 last year, based on records from the Domestic Trade And Consumer Affairs Ministry made available to Sunday Star.
“Such complaints were channelled to us and comprise all categories of food and beverages. This ranges from prepared and cooked food in restaurants to food products sold in stores and supermarkets,” the ministry says.
However, the biggest jump came from complaints involving controlled items like cooking oil and flour. The number of complaints involving these items more than tripled from 333 in 2019 to 1,321 last year.
“Consumers also raised grouses about non-food controlled items like masks, Covid-19 self-test kits, cooking gas and petrol or diesel oil,” adds the ministry.
On possible reasons for the spike in complaints, the ministry says 2020 was the year when the movement control order was first introduced with a ban on dining-in at eateries among the restrictions.
“As such, there is a possibility that more consumers flocking to supermarkets to buy ingredients in bulk would have driven up prices, coupled with the tough economy,” it says.
For this year so far, 1,776 consumer complaints on pricing have been lodged with the ministry, with the bulk of it – 1,095 – involving food items.
“The remainder are complaints about the prices of drinks (300) and controlled items (381),” says the ministry, referring to data collected up to Nov 2.
Upon receiving such complaints, the ministry will investigate if they are genuine before taking action, which may include issuing warnings or compounding errant traders.
The ministry assures the public that it keeps a constant eye on prices to ensure that consumers are protected from irresponsible parties who charge exorbitantly.
“The ministry has 1,000 price monitoring officers throughout the country who continuously conduct checks on the ground at markets, sundry shops, supermarkets and other stores,” it says.
However, it also urges consumers to play their role in managing the prices of food items.
Using the recent example of the price of Indian onions shooting up, the ministry says consumers are always free to choose more affordable options.
“Prices will change according to supply and demand. At a time when the onions from India were about RM20 per kg, it was because the demand was very high for them.
“But if consumers are willing to choose cheaper options, surely the price will go down. The problem exists when consumers do not want to adjust their tastes and preferences,” it says.
It was reported that prices of Indian onions had risen to as much as RM18 per kg since late last year compared with the usual price of between RM3 and RM4 per kg.
The ministry says it will continue to carry out advocacy efforts through social media and other platforms to educate consumers about making wiser purchases.
“We will continue promoting messages to empower our consumers to exercise their rights, either on the supply, quality or prices of goods.
“For example, consumers must check the expiry date of canned food products to ensure such items have not gone bad.
“They should also check the ingredients of such manufactured products to decide if they are suitable for consumption,” the ministry says.
Should there be any complaints about the safety of ingredients or substances used in the food, the ministry will dispatch a team to check products in such stores and, if need be, ask that they be removed from shelves.
“This has to be done together with experts from the Health Ministry and others, as it may involve a more thorough assessment,” says the ministry.
The Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers (FMM) Malaysian Food Manufacturing Group assures the public that food safety is of utmost importance to the industry players.
“We advocate that all member companies adhere to strict food quality assurance and management systems to ensure that products are safe for consumption and in compliance with all local regulatory requirements.
“The FMM closely collaborates with the authorities, including the Health Ministry, on all matters pertaining to the food code and food safety,” it says.