Monday, February 19, 2018

We can’t drink to that


Mark Fraser

 TWO thousand miles, 732 pounds of cocaine, 700 Trinidad fruit juices cans, four days, three press releases, and not one word from SM Jaleel and Co., to the consumers of its products around the world. In those three press releases, two of them buried in the “News” section of its website, SM Jaleel, producer of the Trinidad fruit juices brand, said absolutely nothing to assure, enlighten or assist its product consumers. Jaleel may be a stellar performer, but with the heavily publicised $100 million cocaine find in cans similar to the company’s, Jaleel’s prime focus should have been consumer assurance and not its own back. Instead, Jaleel’s announcements are self-serving, leaving everyone to figure out the fate of the company’s millions of beverages in homes, on shop and supermarket shelves, and on their way into thousands of children’s lunch bags around the world. 

Consumer fear would not have been overdone. Five weeks ago St Vincent-born UK resident, Joromie Lewis died after allegedly consuming something laced with cocaine from a Pear D bottle, another SM Jaleel product that the company says it did not itself export to the UK. With last week’s announcement of the cocaine find in the American port of Norfolk, in Virginia in Trinidad fruit juices cans exported from Trinidad, consumer concern must have been heightened, mainly because SM Jaleel manufactures the Trinidad fruit juices brand, exports it to the US, and this was not one can of juice but over 700 that the initial drug bust announcement described as showing no signs of being tampered with. Like Joromie Lewis, every consumer of an SM Jaleel product has much more at stake than SM Jaleel itself after the Norfolk cocaine find. What is SM Jaleel doing about that?

In the four days following the announcement of the cocaine bust, the public saw a company whose core values include caring, compassion and humility and demonstrating integrity and respect to customers, focus its immediate attention and resources on taking itself out of the cocaine mess and leaving consumers to fend for themselves. In its first press statement the day after the Norfolk announcement, SM Jaleel touted its own achievements for four paragraphs before it got to the cocaine issue. And, when it did, the company offered a mind-numbing view that, since neither the Narcotics Bureau of the T&T Police Service nor T&T Customs had been contacted by the US authorities, “from this we can deduce that this is a foreign issue which will be resolved abroad.” A foreign issue which will be resolved abroad? Is SM Jaleel serious?

One day later, SM Jaleel’s second press release contradicts the original reports out of Norfolk and the company says, “The juice product was not original and had been tampered with.” The release also noted that, “These products are being targeted since SMJ is this country’s #1 non-oil/petrochemical exporter and our brands are well known and respected.” Here’s where SM Jaleel misses the point. 

It is one thing to say with confidence that the company did not attempt to export cocaine to the US. But Jaleel itself says that its products are targeted. Its consumers know Jaleel’s products were used in the intercepted shipment; they may have been used in other shipments that have not been intercepted; and these products may, in error, have entered the marketplace, in the still-unexplained manner in which the Pear D may have entered the UK marketplace and into Joromie Lewis’s stomach. 

And it is that possibility that SM Jaleel is saying and doing nothing about. Surely, SM Jaleel cannot wash its hands of the responsibility by saying this was not its shipment and it is a foreign issue to be resolved abroad. The shipment of Trinidad fruit juices originated from the same country in which Jaleel manufactures a product by that name. Are these SM Jaleel’s juices? Are these SM Jaleel’s cans? Have they been tampered with? Were these cans actually sealed at Jaleel’s plant? Were empty cans taken from Jaleel and sealed elsewhere? Were Jaleel’s labels taken and placed on cans packed and sealed elsewhere? These are the questions SM Jaleel must answer, while a parallel criminal investigation is underway. These are the questions SM Jaleel has not answered in the four days following the drug bust announcement while thousands of its products would have been consumed around the world.  

For four days so far, SM Jaleel, a beverage manufacturer for 90 years, provided no “hotline” for consumers who may have questions on the Trinidad fruit juices products or other SM Jaleel products. For four days, as events unfolded 2,000 miles away in Norfolk, SM Jaleel offered no consumer advisories; no suggestion that it would be willing to refund product purchases; no suggestions for anyone who may have experienced health issues after consuming an SM Jaleel product. For four days, SM Jaleel offered no consumer-related information, even as a story of a major cocaine find in its products circulated the globe. 

SM Jaleel is not the only one standing in blissful ignorance of the consumer. There is not one word or action from the Ministers of Consumer Affairs or Health. Again, here’s the prospect that SM Jaleel’s product, by its own admission, may be targeted, and neither the consumer affairs nor health authorities have an interest. Four days after the announcement nobody in a decision-making position in this country seems to appreciate that while the drug bust is of great significance, the real threat lies with the circumstances of the concealment of the cocaine and the risk, remote as it may be, posed by SM Jaleel’s products. 

Joromie Lewis’s death is real. SM Jaleel’s principals seem to be the only ones living on Fantasy Island where a multi-million dollar enterprise operating for 90 years and exporting to every corner of the globe believes that 732 pounds of cocaine in a brand made right here for human consumption is a, “foreign issue to be resolved abroad.”

• Clarence Rambharat is an attorney and a university lecturer