Mislabelling remains a concern

Mislabelling of food products in South Africa

In December 2015, the Department of Trade And Industry (dti) and the National Consumer Commission hosted a seminar on Food Labelling and Consumer Protection in Pretoria. The mislabelling of various products is common in South Africa, and not only violates food regulations, but poses a number of economic, ethical as well as health challenges.

The seminar took a holistic view of how food labelling affects domestic consumers and impacts on companies wanting to export their product. It focused on  trends and the developments in respect of the labelling of food products in the consumer market, the food labelling regulations within the context of the Consumer Protection Act (CPA) of 2008 in South Africa and the respective state of enforcement/compliance or lack thereof, the risks and consequences of misinterpretation and non-compliance with food labelling regulations, country of origin food labelling requirements as well as the approaches to effectively enforce food labelling regulations in the country.

Stakeholders in the food industry attended in large numbers, such as food industry associations in various sub-sectors, policy makers, retailers, importers, exporters, regulators, lobby groups, activists and academics.

Andisa Potwana, director at the Consumer and Corporate Regulation Division at the dti stated that an important goal for the country has been to implement Consumer Tribunals per province as is standard in Germany. However, this could not be achieved at this point in time.

She also alluded to current procedures of the Consumer Protection Act, which state that when prohibited conduct was reported, the case would be referred to the Consumer Tribunal, which can have serious financial consequences.

If the tribunal were to find in favour of the consumer, the case would then go to the High Court. It is a major concern of the tribunal that previously disadvantaged consumers were to a large degree not yet vigilant in regard to the quality of food and goods. They emphasised how important it is to help consumers to become more discerning and to know their rights and what recourse they had if the goods are not satisfactory. Reading the labels on goods would be a crucial step to becoming discerning as a consumer and for this reason labels would have to be accurate and informative.

 Examples of deception in the food chain included the fact that hake was sometimes treated with colourant to make it appear to be salmon. Chicken was also a contentious subject, with up to 30 per cent of the product weight made up of brine.  

Among the participants was Louise van der Merwe, the Representative for Compassion and World Farming South Africa and editor of Voice Animal, who has lobbied strenuously, for the past six years, for eggs from battery cages to be labelled as ‘cage eggs’. The South African department of Agriculture currently states that keeping laying hens in tiny wire battery cages is the norm and hence cartons would need no specification.

Van der Merwe stated after the seminar, ‘On the grounds of what I have learnt at the seminar, I believe that we have a good chance of achieving the label ‘cage eggs’ on cartons of battery eggs, by enlisting Minister Rob Davies’ right to prescribe’ as given to him in the Consumer Protection Act. Thus, he is given ultimate authority on whether or not battery eggs are labelled as ‘Cage Eggs’ or not.

Awareness generated through accurate food labelling may finally see these issues raised to a higher political concern.