Procter & Gamble Co. says independent tests prove that Unilever's new manganese-based detergent damages clothing. Unilever retorts that P&G got the results by ordering up the severest test conditions. Not so, says P&G.

You'd expect a war of words between two archrivals. But what hurts Unilever are the pronouncements of several consumer groups. The independent Netherlands-based Consumer Organization says its own tests show cotton clothes lose much of their normal strength when washed in Unilever's new powder. "It's only a matter of time before the cloth tears," says spokesman Matthew de Vaan. Unilever is reformulating its powder--but not, say spokespeople, because there's a problem. Only because the company wants to prevent consumers from being unduly alarmed.

TOO HASTY? Unilever says it tested its new Persil and Omo Power quite thoroughly. The British Textile Technology Group (BTTG), an independent lab, "told us unequivocally there was no physical damage on garments," Unilever says. Some 60,000 consumers bought the product before a Europewide rollout. In a separate, controlled test, 500 volunteers used the powder to wash bath towels and linen tea towels with positive results.

Yet Unilever may have been too hasty. The 60,000 consumers in test markets bought the new powder over three months. That may not have been enough time for deterioration to appear in garments, which critics say lose much of their strength after 15 to 20 washes in the new powder. And the controlled test largely involved towels made of linen, which P&G researchers claim is the toughest fabric around and would show little damage. In addition, the BTTG says its favorable report was only preliminary and did not contain crucial fabric safety data. Unilever won't release the full report. In any case, it's clear that sometimes the rush to market can produce a stumble.

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