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Dutch blow to Unilever soap powder: Consumer group challenged over its findings on 'wear and tear'

UNILEVER, the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate, suffered a setback yesterday in its European battle with rival Procter and Gamble when a Dutch consumers' organisation delivered an unexpectedly harsh verdict on the company's new soap powder.

The consumer body's credibility was quickly challenged, however, when Albert Heijn, one of the Netherlands' largest retail chains, advised its outlets to disregard its conclusions.

Procter and Gamble has been attacking the Unilever product - known as Omo Power in the Netherlands and Persil Power in the UK - since its launch earlier this year, claiming it causes undue damage to clothes. It has targeted European consumer groups in an attempt to discredit the product.

The Dutch association, Consumentenbond, giving its verdict after tests on the powder, said it 'washes just as clean as another good bleach-containing detergent at 40 and 60 degrees centigrade. However, we feel that the wear-and-tear of the washing is too high, especially for coloured cotton'.

Unilever, whose senior executives suspect a Procter and Gamble-inspired 'dirty tricks' campaign, immediately challenged the Dutch group's findings. 'The conclusions fly in the face of the actual test results,' a source said.

Procter and Gamble tried unsuccessfully to prevent the launch of Unilever's product last March, claiming it had evidence that it damaged clothes. Procter has since campaigned to try to have the powder removed from supermarket shelves.

Unilever feels that consumer associations are apt to come out with stronger conclusions than their tests merit, because of the publicity value of such action. Privately, it had expected the Dutch group to be more favourable than the UK Consumers Association, which it already considers will support Procter and Gamble's stance.

Unilever said yesterday that the test results in the Netherlands were not unfavourable, even though the overall conclusions of Consumentenbond were. It said that 'although the publication mentions good to very good evaluations for several test aspects, it seems that the Consumentenbond only partly recognises the specific properties of Omo Power in the areas of stain removal and environmental benefits'.

In a falling UK market, shares in Unilever fell 25p to 1,117p. The shares lost 3.30 guilders to close at 196.50 in Amsterdam.