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Ribena Vitamin C claims false and misleading: Court

27 March 2007

GlaxoSmithKline has pleaded guilty to 15 representative charges of breaching the Fair Trading Act by making misleading claims about the Vitamin C content of Ribena. The Commission investigated after a complaint from two college students who tested the drink for a science project.

In the Auckland District Court today, GlaxoSmithKline was fined $227,500, and ordered to undertake a nationwide campaign of corrective advertising in newspapers to explain that some forms of Ribena contain no detectable level of vitamin C.

The guilty pleas relate to two kinds of misleading or false claims about Ribena made between March 2002 and March 2006. Five charges relate to claims that ready-to-drink Ribena contain 7mg of vitamin C per 100ml. Testing found no vitamin C in the ready-to-drink product. Ten charges relate to claims in TV adverts that "the blackcurrants in Ribena have four times the vitamin C of oranges." GlaxoSmithKline now accept this statement was liable to mislead consumers.

Commerce Commission Chair Paula Rebstock says that thousands of New Zealanders have been misled by the claim that Ribena contained high levels of vitamin C.

"Health claims are big business in today's market, and the Commission has targeted bogus health claims in recent years. It is very disappointing to see a major pharmaceutical and health products company like GlaxoSmithKline mislead the public in this way."

Ms Rebstock described the behaviour as "a massive breach of trust with the New Zealand public."

"The Commission's view is that Kiwis have bought Ribena, for themselves and their children, because GlaxoSmithKline's marketing convinced them it was healthier than other drinks."

"The company specifically promoted the vitamin C-related health benefits of Ribena for children, teenagers, and pregnant women."

"GlaxoSmithKline had an absolute responsibility to make sure its vitamin C claims were accurate and could be substantiated. As a multinational company specialising in pharmaceuticals and health products, they should have had robust testing and quality assurance systems in place to ensure its product was delivering what it promised."

GlaxoSmithKline's Consumer Healthcare division sells health care products, including a range described as "nutritional drinks," of which Ribena is the most significant.

Ms Rebstock said that the case should alert other businesses to the importance of ensuring that claims made in advertising and on packaging were accurate.

"Companies should be monitoring the quality of the products they are selling, and if they find or suspect their product is not meeting the claims made, they must act immediately to correct the problem and inform consumers."

GlaxoSmithKline were alerted to the possibility that Ribena was not meeting its vitamin C claims in 2004, when it was contacted by two Pakuranga College students, and then by Fair Go, but the company did not stop making the claims until March 2006.

Ms Rebstock noted that other companies have failed to act when they became aware of quality issues with a product. Last year, Carter Holt Harvey was fined $900,000 for misleading claims about the quality of its timber; the company had been aware of quality issues but had not acted on that knowledge.

Ms Rebstock said the Commission applauded the actions of the two students who sparked the investigation, Anna Devathasan and Jenny Suo.

"It goes to show that consumer action really can make a difference - we hope it inspires other consumers to hold companies to the promises they make."


Claims on ready-to-drink Ribena packaging

Packaging claims that ready-to-drink Ribena contains seven milligrams of vitamin C per 100 millilitres, or 44% of the Recommended Daily Intake. The Commission's testing found that ready-to-drink Ribena contains no detectable level of vitamin C. GSK pleaded guilty to five charges relating to these claims.

The "four times" claim

television advertising claimed that "the blackcurrants in Ribena have four times the vitamin C of oranges." The Commission argued that this claim, while literally true, was likely to mislead consumers about the relative levels of vitamin C in Ribena and orange drinks. (As an example of the true comparison, Ribena syrup diluted in the recommended way has only one and a half times the vitamin C of orange juice). GSK pleaded guilty to 10 charges relating to these "four times" claims.

Students spark investigation.

The Commission opened an investigation into the claims about Ribena's vitamin C content in 2004 after a complaint from two Pakuranga College students, Anna Devathasan and Jenny Suo, who had tested the vitamin C content of soft drinks for an entry in the Manukau City Science & Technology Fair, run by the Manukau Institute of Technology. The two schoolgirls approached GlaxoSmithKline about their findings in 2004 but received no reply. The girls then approached television programme Fair Go, which wrote to GlaxoSmithKline in October 2004 with questions about Ribena's vitamin C levels. The company responded in a letter dated 26 October 2004 stating: All Ribena products boldly highlight the actual and correct vitamin C content (as required by law) within the nutritional panels. The claim "the blackcurrants in Ribena contain four times the amount of vitamin C as oranges" is correct and relates to blackcurrants and oranges in their natural whole fruit state. This is a claim that is applicable to all Ribena products, not just the concentrate.

Testing for vitamin C.

The testing regime used by GSK to establish the quantity of vitamin C in its Ribena RTD products was the same one used for many years by GSK for its syrup product. While the test is accurate for testing the syrup, it is not suitable for testing the ready-to-drink product, because of the much lower concentration of vitamin C in the RTD product. Moreover, GSK took no steps to ascertain whether vitamin C levels in Ribena declined over time if the product was stored before sale to consumers.

Ribena television advertising.

Between January 2005 to March 2006, GSK ran a television commercial that claimed that "the blackcurrants in Ribena have four times the vitamin C of oranges. That's 1,2,3,4 times more vitamin C". From March 2002 to June 2004, the packaging for Ribena contained the statement that "the blackcurrants in Ribena contain four times the vitamin C of oranges". Between May 2003 to July 2005, GSK ran a television commercial that claimed that Ribena is "made from natural blackcurrants that have four times the vitamin C of oranges". Between August 2004 to May 2005, GSK ran a television commercial that claimed that "it's the juicy blackcurrants with four times the vitamin C of oranges that make Ribena so delicious".

GlaxoSmithKline NZ Limited

is the local subsidiary of a global pharmaceutical company, GlaxoSmithKline, which had a turnover in 2005 of approximately $61 billion. It is New Zealand's largest pharmaceutical company, and total sales in 2003 were approximately $158 million. GSK is structured into two divisions - Consumer Healthcare and Pharmaceuticals. The Consumer Healthcare division sells health care products, including a range described by GSK as "nutritional drinks", of which Ribena is the most significant.


Ribena is a blackcurrant fruit drink. It is manufactured in a range of overseas plants from blackcurrants grown in New Zealand. The product range includes a syrup diluted by customers with water, and products sold ready to drink, whether still or sparkling. Ribena is New Zealand's number one selling blackcurrant drink, and has been for many decades. Total New Zealand sales in 2005 were approximately $8 million.

Number of charges.

GlaxoSmithKline originally faced 80 charges. The 15 representative charges represent the same behaviour covered in those original charges.

The Fair Trading Act

The Fair Trading Act 1986 is designed to protect consumers from false or misleading conduct and representations by traders. Section 10 of the Act provides that "No person shall, in trade, engage in conduct that is liable to mislead the public as to the nature, manufacturing process, characteristics, suitability for a purpose, or quantity of goods". Section 13(a) of the Act provides that no person shall, in trade, in connection with the supply or possible supply of goods or services or with the promotion by any means of the supply or use of goods or services, (a) make a false or misleading representation that goods are of a particular kind, standard, quality, grade, quantity, composition, style, or model, or have had a particular history or particular previous use.

Other Commission action on health claims

In July 2005, Ecoworld were ordered to pay $136,000 in fines and refunds for misrepresenting the powers of its "living water" product, which the judge described as "quackery." In November 2005, misleading claims about Celluslim pills resulted in refunds of $195,000 from vendors Marketing Direct, along with $61,000 in fines and costs. Also in November 2005, the Tomorrow Dream Line company and its director Jonathan Ken were convicted for a second time for claiming ordinary honey was Active Manuka honey, valued for its antibacterial properties. In July 2006 Zenith Corporation were ordered to pay $792,000 in fines, costs and corrective advertising for misleading the public that its Body Enhancer product aided weight loss.

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