It is a statement you will find on most of our packaging - Clearly, in bold writing are the words "THIS IS NOT FOOD - DO NOT EAT!". Sometimes we vary it to avoid needless repetition and instead put "THIS IS SOAP - IT IS NOT EDIBLE!"
Now, before I begin my second rant in as many posts may I remind you of the anally retarded EU legislative bureaucracy that requires packets of nuts to carry a warning on them stating "Ingredients may contain nuts" on them. I feel its fair to say that this is perhaps only the tip of the ice-berg. Still, on with the story...
On a mission to get Carla's Soap-making categorised as "Contemporary Art" with Craft NI, we were notified that there is a European Directive on Food Imitation that banned us from making soap that looked like food.
It takes a little while to read and get your head around the wording of the text - but for your eyes only.... Here it is... The Food Imitations (Safety) Regulations 1989
No person shall supply, offer to supply, agree to supply, expose for supply or possess for supply any manufactured goods which are ordinarily intended for private use and are not food but which–
(a)have a form, odour, colour, appearance, packaging, labelling, volume or size which is likely to cause persons, in particular, children to confuse them with food and in consequence to place them in their mouths or suck them or swallow them; and
(b)where such action as is mentioned in (a) above is taken in relation to them, may cause death or personal injury.
Now, its easy to see why many soap makers have believed they couldn't make any type of product that resembled foodstuff - but, upon careful reading you might spot a crafty little semi-colon followed by the word "and".
Its not the making of products that look like food that is the problem - its only becomes an issue if a piece which is bitten off can be deemed a choking hazard. Panic of a ruined business could perhaps be left aside as we took an opportunity to breathe.
So, off I went to find out what types of tests highlighted potential choking hazards. There is a Choking hazard test that involves sticking bits of a soap into a plastic tube which sits at an angle. If the soap fits into the tube - its a choking hazard. If part of the soap still remains outside of the tube - its deemed okay (or so we thought!).
Having cleared our conscience we were also aware that there might be a requirement for another test known as the "bite test". I had a quick look to see what this was about.
Fundamentally, it is about chemists and the government ripping the ass out of a piece of useless and fundamentally flawed bit of legislation (more of that later.) A bite test is when a product gets squeezed between two bits of sharp metals at various degrees of pressure to see what force the product can withstand. It costs about £1000 to buy a calibrated version and its about £140 to get a bite test done on a product (though there are also numerous other tests that need carried out in conjunction with this one). I know you are just dying to see what one looks like - so "Ta Da!"....
£1000 - you have got to be having a laugh!
So, faced with possible closure of a business start up that had started with capital less than this single item of equipment we were faced with a bit of a conundrum.
Do we, like almost every other soap maker who makes cupcakes, soap tarts and soap cakes out there; carry on regardless until we are told otherwise? Do we seek advise from trading standards? Or, do we pull all our stock of the shelves and focus on something else?
Every little fibre of my being felt we should carry on regardless until we were told otherwise. We were carrying out the choke hazard test and labelling everything appropriately. I figured if people can sell cigarettes, bleach, batteries, keys, real apples and little pieces of carrot to parents expecting the parent to make an educated and informed decision about where they put the product for safe-keeping the same could be expected of our soaps. Which, may I add, carry the clear message that they are not assessed, nor to be used on anyone under the age of 3; which is added to the very clear "THIS IS NOT FOOD" warning.
However, consumed by conscience (AKA Carla) and a deep-rooted desire to be law observant I decided to telephone Trading Standards and subsequently Consumer safety about the issue.
Lesson 1 - NEVER DO THIS! - NEVER, EVER, EVER do this off your own free will!
Lesson 2 - Rapidly acquire the skill of saintly patience if in the unfortunate situation where you must speak to once of the aforementioned officers.
Lesson 3 - Learning how much punching the air can help with frustration when speaking to people who serve a system that only makes me seek to presume them to be anally retentive! (I'm stretching it a bit - she turned out to be quite lovely - but I still resent that I pay the wages of someone who does a job I don't believe in!)
The Consumer Saftey Advisor was approached by us for advice - what we got in return was an assumption of guilt. Rather than work with us into compliance we were in fact treated as offenders - despite my willingness to comply with legislation. I tried asking for financial assistance to do the test, offered to hire the equipment if it could be bought.
Now, let me remind you that there are 100's of soap-makers in the UK selling food like soaps, who are not aware of this legislation or who have not sought to become compliant. The response from this consumer safety officer was "I only work 2 days a month on consumer safety. I can only deal with those who come to my attention, I can't go looking for those who are not compliant."
So, in other words - I'm getting pulled over the coals because we have integrity? GO FIGURE!!!
Now, to be fair, whilst I'm a compliant sort of guy - I do have a tendency to ask difficult questions, I have a desire to understand why things are as they are and perhaps can even be seen as a "difficult character" So, patiently persevering, due to the fact we don't have money to do a test I asked what would happen if we didn't do as requested.
The response was, "oh, well in that case, we will do the test to prove that the products are safe or not".
I answered, "and if they are safe? Can we then continue to sell them?"
"... uh... no."
"Why?" I said, "surely if you are going to test them and they are deemed 'safe' I am free to sell the products."
"Well, no. You see we will have the certificate, not you. You can't produce that certificate to us by way of proving that your products are safe. You must therefore go and have them tested again, in order to prove to us that they are in fact safe."
"WARNING CONSUMER SAFETY & TRADING STANDARDS POLICY MAY CONTAIN.... NUTS!"
We met with the officer, who was lovely (you are lovely, if you happen to be reading this). She too understood the frustration of logic v's legislation but is only trying to do her "pointless" (my opinion) job.
The quote that beggars belief from the meeting but sums it up well was.
"your products do not look unsafe, so continue to sell them, however you must prove to me in six weeks that they are safe."
No one actually thinks our soaps are "unsafe" but they want us to pay out hundreds of pounds on something that states they are "safe". Why in the name of good sense would anyone do that?
Carla persevered. "where does it say in the legislation that we must possess a certificate that state they are safe? If you have the certificate, in your name, why on earth do you need us to also possess one - if legislation doesn't require it?
She's coming back to us on that one!
In the interim, we have weighed up the pros and cons, whys and wherefores, what comes next type conversations and decided on the following steps.
1. We are going to sell our soaps until we are told otherwise as we nor those responsible deem them "unsafe".
2. We will, if required take them off the shelves in order for them to be tested. If they are deemed unsafe - we will remove them from public sale (despite the bleach, batteries, keys, countless food soaps etc being sold daily in Europe and elsewhere).
3. If they are deemed safe, we will sell our soaps again and look forward to being prosecuted for not having a certificate in our possession by the prosecuting body that holds that very documentation themselves!
4. And, if we can't sell our soap art, it really has been quite a life enhancing few weeks, as it has re-invigorated our desire to not just grow into a social enterprise - but start as we mean to go on. Undeniably ethical.
The last few weeks has finely honed our desire to only use organic ingredients where the option is available; to only purchase Fairly traded where the option is available (and eagerly pursue getting planters and growers to provide us with these direct where possible). We have also a desire to become a social business by employing long term unemployed, people with disabilities etc; but more importantly, in the immediate, to give 20% of our profit or a certain percentage of each bar we sell to a charity we believe in. It has got us looking at partnering with the charities we love and how we may also contribute in some way to creating social enterprises elsewhere in the world. It has also got us thinking about our core values of who we are, who we were called to be and what God might do in us through a business created for others. It has even borne us a new strap-line.
ScENT - BECAUSE THEY'RE WORTH IT!
One thing I should point out - before someone points it out. This legislation wasn't made because of someone having choked on a piece of soap that looked like a food. It was actually to do with a fragranced rubber that caused great concern. This item was in fact marketed to kids and for children - you can kinda see the danger this might have presented. Cosmetics, on the other hand, are licensed only for people aged 3 up and our particular soaps are actually geared towards adults with warnings attached. Further, if like me, you have taken the opportunity to bite into one of the products - you will find it absolutely impossible to swallow and I guarantee you spit it out in no more than 3 seconds!