SOUTH AFRICA – Some of the country’s major retailers have been implicated in a food labelling scandal that could see consumers suffering from diarrhoea, vomiting and, in severe cases, death.
A recent National Consumer Commission investigation has lifted the lid on a widespread practice of unlawfully altering, replacing and removing food labels.
The probe found 84 retailers in Mpumalanga and North-West, including Spar, Shoprite, U-Save and OK Foods, guilty of labelling offences of many basic food items such as eggs, milk, tea, mincemeat and baby formula.
Commission inspectors said they were “shocked” by what they found. This included food labels being tippexed out, labels being torn off, ingredient lists missing and homemade labels being placed on the original label containing a new, false expiry date. Some items had no labelling whatsoever.
The commission plans to roll out its investigation to the rest of the country, believing labelling crimes are rife.
This is largely because some of the 84 shops included those with a countrywide presence. Many spaza shops and general dealers were also at fault.
It is an offence under the Consumer Protection Act to alter, falsify or remove a food label, and those found guilty face up to 12 months’ imprisonment or a fine of R1m or up to 10% of their annual turnover.
The consequences for unsuspecting consumers can be severe.
Food microbiologist and food safety expert Lucia Anelich said that while food that had passed its expiry date was not always dangerous to eat, it could lead to food poisoning that, in extreme cases, could be fatal.
“There is no ‘one answer fits all’ but, generally speaking, the vulnerable sectors of the population — young children, the elderly, those with compromised immune systems and pregnant women — are more susceptible to food poisoning and to more severe effects of food poisoning.”
Prof Anelich said these included kidney failure, birth defects and meningitis. More common, she said, was that the quality of food was affected once it passed its expiry date.
Head of the commission’s inspection team, Ntsako Khoza, said that one shop manager had admitted that he had instructed his staff to remove the labels from products that had passed their expiry date, saying he did not have enough time to sell the products and was losing money.
The commission’s head of investigations, Prudence Moilwa, said all the guilty shops had signed consent orders undertaking to rectify their wrongful practices.
Consumer law expert Trudie Broekmann said that it would be a criminal offence to contravene these orders.
Mr Broekmann added that the commission’s findings served as a “wake-up call for retailers”.
“This could cause phenomenal damage (to a retailer’s image) in the eyes of the consumer. These things can open retailers up to big claims, including legal and medical expenses and compensation for the harm caused to the consumer,” he said.
Some of the major retailers said individual franchise owners were responsible for the breaches.
Sarita van Wyk, spokeswoman for Shoprite Checkers group, which includes OK Food and U-Save stores, attributed failures to human fault.
“An average store in the supermarket group carries up to 30,000 food products and human error will unfortunately occur from time to time on individual products.” Ms Van Wyk said that OK Foods was managed by individual franchisees and she could not speak on their behalf.
Similarly, Spar Group merchandise executive Mike Prentice said: “All of the Spar stores are actually owned by the independent retailers and are therefore managed separately and are not owned by Spar the listed company. As a result, they do not have reporting channels on all events that take place at store level.”
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