Every single food item we purchase in a store has a label or two. While we can sometimes overlook the labels, they are doing a vital job. Food labelling helps to promote consumer confidence and trust in the food industry by providing them with the information they need to make informed decisions about the foods they eat. It also helps to promote transparency, safety, and fair trade practices in the food industry.
But what does it all really mean for consumers, how does it affect consumers and why should consumers be aware of the laws relating to food labelling? It is because there is expectation and trust on the part of the consumer. The consumer expects a supplier of foodstuffs to comply with the relevant laws relating to their product and trust that the manner in which the foodstuff is handled, and the information that is presented to the consumer regarding a product, is true and not misleading. From allergen declarations, the amount of sugar present in a product right down to the storage instructions of a foodstuff, consumers are fast becoming more conscious of what is in their foodstuffs.
In South Africa, food labelling is regulated by the Department of Health through the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act (Act 54 of 1972) and the Regulations Relating to the Labelling and Advertising of Foodstuffs (R146). The regulations also require that labels be written in English, but may also include one or more of the other official languages of South Africa, such as Afrikaans, isiZulu, or Sesotho.
All food products sold in South Africa must have labels that include certain mandatory information such as the product name, ingredients list, net quantity, country of origin, and the name and address of the manufacturer or importer. Common allergens must be declared on a label and the manner in which allergens must be declared is regulated by R146.
Date marking is a piece of mandatory information on a label. It must be indicated on the label and in the following manner: “best before”, “BB” and/or “use by” and/or “sell by”. Any person is prohibited from removing or altering the date marking. However, it is important to note that when the “best before” dates have been reached, it does not mean that the food is unsafe, but that it may be past its best. “Use by” is somewhat more instructive and often applies to refrigerated items where the risk of microbiological spoilage can be expected to increase after a given date. “Sell by” is a store guideline to ensure that goods still have a reasonable shelf life after sale.
If there are claims made on a label, such as “High in fibre” it is mandatory to have a nutritional table on the label. If the nutritional table has been indicated on the label, whether voluntarily by the manufacturer or due to the fact that a claim has been made on the label, the Regulations relating to the Foodstuffs Act (R146) prescribes a very specific format in which the nutritional information must be presented. Amongst other requirements, the nutritional information must be presented in the tabular format, energy content must be declared in “kilojoules” or “kJ”, and the amount of each nutrient present in the foodstuff must be expressed per 100 g/ml and per single serving.
South Africa has also done some pioneering things in terms of food manufacturing and food labelling. South Africa was the first country in the world to require mandatory fortification of staple foods with vitamins and minerals, including wheat flour, maize meal, and rice. The fortification of these foods is aimed at addressing the country’s high levels of nutrient deficiencies. In 2018, South Africa also implemented a new regulation requiring the warning label “high in sugar” on food and drinks with more than 17.5 grams of sugar per 100 millilitres. This regulation is aimed at addressing the country’s high rates of obesity and related health problems.
Labelling legislation in South Africa is complex and must be looked at as a whole and not each part in isolation. In addition to the multitude of legislations pertaining to food labelling, there is also no single regulatory authority on labelling of foodstuffs. Bearing all this in mind, and although it can be a bit overwhelming, consumers must be aware of their rights and where to go should they have a complaint.
Suppliers and retailers must also take note of the many food labelling legislations which will impact their marketing, designing of labels and ultimately their relationship with the consumer. With new labelling Regulations in the pipeline gearing to replace R146, understanding the complex nature of our South African labelling legislation has never been more important.
(This article contains information originally published by the Food Advisory Consumer Services)