THE NETHERLANDS: Rash Improvement

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Early last month, when a splashy advertising campaign urged Dutchmen to "taste the improvement" in their favorite spread, thousands of housewives obediently followed directions. Most of them agreed that there was indeed something different about the new version of their old friend Planta, the good-eating margarine made by Van den Bergh's & Jurgens' N.V., a subsidiary of the vast Dutch-British Unilever combine. In no time at all, the new Planta* was outselling the old, "unimproved" Planta, which had previously accounted for an estimated 13% of The Netherlands' margarine production.

But as Planta's sales curves soared, Dutch doctors began getting patients troubled by a strange and painful itch. The symptoms, which doctors guessed were the result of a poison rather than a virus, were invariably the same: eczema-like pimples that appeared first on the feet but often spread across the body, temperatures ranging up to 106°. Only after treating thousands of cases did the doctors finally discover the one thing the victims seemed to have in common: all had tasted the new Planta.

Presented with this evidence by the Ministry of Social Affairs, Planta's manufacturers last week admitted that the cause of the rash might well be the "better" Planta's chief new ingredient: a chemical emulsifier intended to cut down frying-pan spatter and improve taste. Hastily, Van den Bergh's & Jurgens' tried to recall the estimated 5,000,000 packages that had been distnouted to Unilever's 40,000 retail stores, took ads in 160 Dutch papers telling housewives that they could exchange their improved Planta for the old kind. The ads, signed simply, "the manufacturer of Planta," offered no apology, simply asked customers to be patient if the old Planta was not readily available in their neighborhood stores.

But at week's end Unilever, too, was beginning to itch. With cases of rash and fever already totaling 50,000, and two deaths attributed to the malady by the Netherlands' National Health Service, an incensed Utrecht lawyer announced his intention of suing Unilever if Planta could be medically proved responsible for his wife's illness.

*Sold only in The Netherlands, although the brand name is marketed across Europe by other Unilever companies, which prepare it according to their own formulas.