Need to know
- In the latest outrage from this serial offender, Mosaic Brands sold mislabelled hand sanitiser that would have been woefully ineffective in protecting against the COVID-19 virus
- Testing at Australia's National Measurement Institute at CHOICE's request reveals that the 70%-alcohol label claim on the sample tested was far from the truth
- Under Australian Consumer Law, it's illegal to sell products with misleading or deceptive label claims
The COVID-19 crisis has brought out the best in some businesses. In others, not so much.
(For evidence of the many acts of consumer kindness we've been tracking, look no further than our Shiny Awards.)
While Mosaic Brands is hardly the only offender out there, we've kept the spotlight on this business because of its shoddy treatment of customers during the COVID-19 crisis on a number of counts.
And also because the continuing bad behaviour comes from a major business ($45.5 million in revenue in 2018–19, up 22% from the previous financial year) whose well-known clothing brands include Rockmans, Katies, Millers, Rivers, Noni B, Beme, Autograph and Crossroads.
The company says its fashion products are all about customers "feeling fabulous", a branding position that many customers would likely take issue with at this point.
By our reckoning, the counts and charges against Mosaic Brands are as follows:
1. Panic marketing
When the virus hit Australia, fear began to take hold in the community and hoarding became a thing, Mosaic Brands took advantage and flogged personal safety products through fear-driven ads. The items in question – including hand sanitiser – were a far cry from the company's normal stock in trade, women's clothing.
2. Non-delivery of goods
As a follow-up to our panic marketing investigation, we established the fact that many Mosaic Brands hand sanitiser customers, having fallen prey to ad copy such as 'stock up now before it's gone' and 'stay safe', never received the product.
3. Selling mislabelled hand sanitiser
And now this: we recently commissioned testing by the National Measurement Institute (NMI) of a bottle of hand sanitiser sold by Katies (a Mosaic Brands store) and labelled as 70% alcohol. The real percentage was 23% – far below what would have been effective against COVID-19. (The NMI conducted the test using the gas chromatography method.)
To the company's credit, it says it has temporarily withdrawn the product in question from sale while it investigates the matter.
CHOICE supporter provides the tip-off
This latest investigation – as with many of our previous Mosaic stories – wouldn't have happened without the help of friends and supporters in the community.
When we began monitoring the marketing behaviour of businesses as the pandemic started to spread, we invited tip-offs – and continue to receive plenty.
The whistleblowing that made the NMI testing possible came from consumer champion Kathy Rice, one of many members of the public who have come forward to share concerns over poor business behaviour during the COVID-19 crisis.
'It doesn't smell like alcohol'
"After delivery of the product from Katies, I became concerned that it was falsely labelled and didn't contain the 70% alcohol as stated," Kathy told us in May this year. "It doesn't smell like alcohol and wouldn't burn."
Her initial attempts to contact the business went nowhere. But Kathy seems to be one of the few customers who finally heard back from Mosaic Brands after many unanswered messages and phone calls (we've heard from many who never got a response).
I am certain that the amount of alcohol in your product is well below the percentage recommended for effective management of the COVID-19 virus and other pathogensConsumer champion Kathy Rice
But the Mosaic Brands customer service person was evasive.
"I used the sanitiser tonight for the first time and was instantly dismayed by its non-alcoholic smell," Kathy told the Katies rep via email.
"So I tried a flame test in which it put the match out and refused to burn. It is certainly not the high-alcohol formula that is labelled."
In a follow-up email, Kathy told the Katies rep: "I am certain that the amount of alcohol in your product is well below the percentage recommended for effective management of the COVID-19 virus and other pathogens. I consider this to be a serious matter that involves the safety of all that have purchased this product."
Instead of returning the hand sanitiser she bought from the Mosaic Brands store Katies, Kathy Rice sent the product to CHOICE for testing.
Store's response to Kathy
The rep stood by the product, saying "our vendor follows strict pharmaceutical quality assurance standards, including lab testing and batch sampling on the appearance of the solution, active ingredient content, and pH level. However, hand sanitiser product efficacy standards do not include a flammability test".
"They don't answer my questions about whether the product has been tested in Australia, nor comment on my concern that the safety of those who have purchased the product is compromised," Kathy told CHOICE following the exchange with Mosaic.
"I haven't asked for a refund, but yesterday they offered a full refund if I returned the goods to them," Kathy says.
NMI testing confirms fears
Kathy is not the only Mosaic Brands customer who contacted us about hand sanitiser they'd bought from the company that didn't seem right.
But instead of returning the dodgy goods, Kathy contacted CHOICE. We arranged to pick up the product and send it along to the NMI, whose testing confirmed Kathy's fears that the product did not contain 70% alcohol.
"If a customer comes to you with valid concerns about your product, especially a product essential to public health in the midst of a pandemic, you take them seriously," says CHOICE director of campaigns and communications Erin Turner.
"We don't want the community to be unnecessarily alarmed, but given the poor response Kathy received and a number of community members contacting us, we need expectations, standards and communication lifted across the board from all retailers selling products related to public health. With our upcoming tests, all retailers selling these products are on notice."
Mosaic Brands responds
After CHOICE forwarded images of the product in question showing the batch number and barcode to Mosaic Brands at their request, a Mosaic Brands spokesperson took issue with the NMI results, saying "we have requested and received further test results from the manufacturer of our hand sanitiser. These show that the alcohol level of the batch from which our product came was within the recommended range to eliminate 99.8% of germs."
"The health and safety of our customers is of paramount importance to us, so yesterday – before we received the further test results mentioned above – we withdrew the product from sale temporarily pending further clarification. Orders for the product will not be fulfilled until we receive the results of the independent tests we are undertaking."
But despite the withdrawal from sale, the spokesperson says "we stand by the test results we have received today that our product is effective in eliminating 99.8% of germs."
CHOICE's Erin Turner says: "We welcome actions from Mosaic to withdraw products from sale and conduct further testing themselves – this is the responsible course of action given the risks involved."
Plenty of dodgy products around
With so many businesses jumping on the hand sanitiser bandwagon at the height of the personal safety equipment shortage, it's fair to assume that more than a few hand sanitisers bought amid the hoarding are non-compliant.
In late June, for instance, the TGA announced that it had slapped $25,200 in fines on Australian Chemical Research for selling hand sanitiser labelled as 80% iso-propanol, a formula that would have met standards.
The trouble was that the product was mostly n-propanol, which is less effective and potentially hazardous to users. It also didn't help that Australian Chemical Research didn't have a licence to manufacture therapeutic goods.
How to tell if your hand sanitiser is legitimate
Recommended alcohol content for effective hand sanitisers ranges from 60% to 80%, depending on the type of alcohol. The Centers for Disease Control in the US recommends hand sanitisers with a minimum of 60% ethanol or 70% isopropanol.
Products that say they adhere to the World Health Organization formula should contain at least 80% ethanol or 75% isopropyl alcohol.
Try this simple test
There are many different formulations, but CHOICE reviews and testing director Matthew Steen recommends a simple test for spotting a fake that applies to all products.
"If a hand sanitiser is sticky and doesn't evaporate off your hands quickly, that's a clue that it might not have the appropriate amount of alcohol needed to kill the virus," Steen says.
And if any product is not fit for purpose, you're entitled to a refund under consumer law.
CHOICE is expanding its investigation of dodgy hand sanitiser being sold in Australia. Have you bought a hand sanitiser product that seems questionable? Please tell us by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.