Daniel Nemukuyu Investigations Editor
AT least 16 registered companies were caught short-changing consumers by selling underweight goods, mainly bread and meat but in two cases maize meal, in the first quarter of this year with seven cases having been referred for prosecution while the rest can escape with warnings or spot fines.
Random visits by the Ministry of Industry and Commerce’s Trade Measures Department inspectors, aimed at protecting consumers from corrupt traders or unchecked scales, have seen seven firms being prosecuted while nine others were served with contravention notices that attract fines or warnings.
Others were using scales that were not verified and authorised by the Trade Measures Board, in violation of the Trade Measures Act.
Such scales are the one that give false readings, skewed against the consumer.
The Herald established that six offenders, apprehended in Bulawayo, were selling bread loaves weighing less than the standard 700g while some butcheries and abattoirs were selling meat using fraudulent scales that were tampered with to give false readings to the prejudice of the consumers.
Two millers (names withheld) were also caught packaging and selling underweight maize meal in Harare and one of them is now facing prosecution.
Six others, including millers, butcheries and bakers were found violating the Act.
In an interview, Trade Measures Board (TMB) chairperson Mr Mathew Ranganai said those now facing court trials over the offences were arrested in Mutare and Harare.
“One milling company in Harare and six other manufacturing firms and butcheries arrested in Mutare are now facing prosecution.
“The other nine companies have since been served with written contravention letters which may result in imposition of fines or warning.
“If our assessment of the remaining cases points to serious acts of criminality, the companies may also end up in court,” he said.
Mr Ranganai said all equipment for trade, like scales, must be vetted and approved by the department before use.
Those who use scales and other unapproved equipment for business, Mr Ranganai said, will be found guilty under the Trade Measures Act.
“Scales and other tools for trade need to be checked and approved by Government to ensure consumers are not prejudiced.
“Most formally registered firms with licences are having problems with the inspectors when their equipment is not verified by the authorities,” he said.
Some firms, Mr Ranganai said, are committing that offence out of ignorance and in such cases, the inspectors issue them with verbal or written warnings depending on the gravity of the breach.
However, Government set up a joint operation team comprising the police, local authorities, Trade Measures Board, the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority and the Office of the President and Cabinet to deal with informal traders who are violating the same law.
Mr Ranganai said the ministry, under the Act, has no power to deal with the illegal traders on the streets without the involvement of the police and other law enforcement agents.
“We are at an advanced stage, setting up a taskforce to deal with the illegal vendors’ fraud on the streets.
“We, as a ministry, can only deal with formally registered companies and illegal traders requires the intervention of the police,” he said.
Apart from following up on millers, bakers and butchers, the ministry is also visiting tobacco floors and fuel stations to ensure people are not swindled.
“We have so far made a total of 347 visits to tobacco companies and auction floors and fuel stations to check on compliance regards their measuring mechanisms.
“This is meant to protect the farmers from fraudsters who may tamper with scales and swindle them of their money.
“It also serves to protect motorists at fuel stations against fraudulent dealings by firms who use substandard measuring tools,” he said.
Meanwhile, vendors selling roller meal on the black-market are now adding to their crimes by stealing some of the meal before selling underweight packs.
Unsuspecting buyers are already paying around double the subsidised $70 price for a 10kg bag, often having to pay US$4 in foreign currency.