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Avoiding a bitter aftertaste

By Arthur Chan

Hong Kong, 9 September 2022: If there has been one growth industry in Hong Kong as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is food deliveries. Social distancing measures and dine-in restrictions have seen more citizens staying home, with the result that food ordering platforms have proliferated.

But if business is on the rise, so too are grievances. The Consumer Council received 522 complaints about food delivery services in the first six months of this year, an increase of more than 30% compared with the same period in 2021. Apart from old issues such as late delivery or getting the order wrong, newer problems involving monthly subscription plans or membership schemes have also surfaced.

Case studies

The Council has released details of three cases it was asked to investigate, highlighting what can go wrong in this fast-evolving and ultra-competitive F&B sector:

Case 1: The complainant had taken out monthly membership with Company A and, on two occasions, ordered food which she collected herself. At both restaurants, she found the “discounted” price she had paid was more than that for dine-in customers. She complained that Company A was cheating clients by marking up the price and then offering so-called discounts. Company A said it encouraged restaurants to set the same price as dine-in, but the final decision was up to the restaurant, leading to potential price variance.

Case 2: A customer signed up to use Company B’s mobile app but found it unsuitable and deleted it two days later. He said he never received an email or text informing him of any membership fee. Eight months later, he checked his credit card statement and discovered he was being charged a monthly subscription fee. He was denied a refund on the grounds that he had accepted Company B’s terms and conditions when installing the app. Company B told the Consumer Council there was a free trial version of the app which clearly stated a monthly subscription fee would be automatically charged after the trial period. The complainant eventually accepted Company B’s offer of a one-month refund.

Case 3: The complainant said Company C made a delivery to him which was late and not what he ordered. He took a photo of the lunchbox – with its transparent lid closed – and receipt and sent it to Company C, which refused a refund on the grounds that the photo did not clearly show the type of food in the box. After the Consumer Council intervened, the company eventually agreed to refund the customer.

What the law says

Under section 54 of the Public Health and Municipal Services Ordinance (Cap. 132), all food for sale for human consumption must be fit for that purpose. Offenders are subject to a maximum fine of $50,000 and imprisonment for six months. Moreover, section 52 of the Ordinance states that any person who sells food which is not of the nature, substance, or quality demanded by the purchaser is guilty of an offence. The maximum penalty is a fine of $10,000 and three months’ imprisonment.

In addition, the Food Business Regulation (Cap. 132X), states that restaurants providing takeaway and food delivery services have to comply with relevant licensing conditions, including those relating to food containers, storage and temperatures for delivery. The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) is clear that the onus is on restaurants to ensure deliveries made on their behalf by online platforms or delivery service contractors are up to standard. Restaurants which breach their licensing conditions may be warned or even have their licences revoked.

Lessons learned

The Consumer Council has recommended food deliverers show greater transparency over fees, sales practices and terms and conditions. Platforms should list both take-out and dine-in prices so customers can compare; remind citizens when any free trial period of their service is about to end; and be more flexible and sensitive in handling complaints.

Citizens using food delivery platforms should exercise caution, including: pay careful attention to pricing and order details; be aware of what they sign up for; regularly check their membership plan (if any) and purchase history; understand the termination process; and keep receipts for future communication with the platform.

Where to air grievances? Complaints regarding an online platform’s fees, sales practices and subscription plans should be directed first at the platform, whereas the regulations make clear that food type and quality are the responsibility of the restaurant. If the matter cannot be resolved, then it is best to approach the Consumer Council.

It is worth noting that the FEHD’s Centre for Food Safety last week announced the results of its most recent surveillance of food deliveries provided either directly by restaurants or via online platforms. A total of 200 food samples were collected and all passed the quality and hygiene tests.

Conclusion

Food delivery services are obviously convenient for consumers and it is understandable that different platforms should offer incentives or membership schemes to capture greater market share. The former should remain vigilant and fully understand the terms and conditions of using such services. The latter should be more open about their operations and work to improve their customer relations to avoid reputational damage. Most disputes are avoidable if all parties adopt a commonsense approach.

Arthur Chan has been an Associate with BC&C since 2018. He deals with Criminal Matters while also covering Civil and Commercial Litigation and handles cases involving personal injury and employment issues. He can be contacted at Arthur@boasecohencollins.com.

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