The report by the Consumers' Association on Unilever's Persil washing powder followed the first public admission by one of the company's executives that they had 'made a mistake' when they launched the new-formula Persil Power.
Morris Tabaksblat, co-chairman of the Anglo-Dutch company, speaking in Beijing on the eve of a new detergent venture in China, said that between research and marketing something went wrong and that the product was initially 'defective'.
Unilever claims that Persil Power is now made to a revised formula that uses less 'accelerator' (a manganese catalyst) and that problems have been ironed out. The CA disputed that claim, arguing that tests on the new version were still incomplete. But it warned that thousands of consumers were still using the old product.
The CA's assistant director, Derek Prentice, said: 'Our independent tests on behalf of the consumer have shown that there can be substantial damage to some clothes.'
Unilever has maintained that any damage would be caused only under extreme laboratory conditions. However, Mr Prentice added: 'Any claim that the original Persil Power causes damage to clothes only under extreme conditions is nonsense.
Consumers deserve a little more plain speaking from Unilever.'
The flaw in Persil Power was first publicised by Procter and Gamble, Unilever's main rival in the pounds 6bn-a-year powder market. Their claim of a 'defect' sparked a soap-suds war of words. Tests and counter-tests were paraded from research laboratories.
Procter and Gamble maintains that the soap industry has traditionally shied away from using manganese - which improves powders' cleaning abilities - because experts fear potential damage.
Unilever says that British stores are selling more than 120,000 packs of reformulated Persil Power each week. They claim that there have not been significant numbers of complaints from consumers.
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