SOUTH AFRICA – Food behemoths Shoprite and Spar tried this week to defuse the row over whether their stores altered or removed food labels on outdated food products that could make people ill.
Revelations this week that the National Consumer Commission (NCC) found 84 retailers in Mpumalanga and North West guilty of tampering with labels of many basic food items — such as eggs, milk, tea, mincemeat, baby formula and cheese — caused alarm.
Commission inspectors expressed “shock” at what they found, including labels being torn off or false expiry dates pasted over the real dates. Such acts are criminal under the Consumer Protection Act, with jail terms a real possibility while people who bought expired food could face food poisoning.
This is the latest food scandal to hit the country’s retailers after a University of Stellenbosch study in April last year found 60% of 139 meat products tested contained anything from donkey to water buffalo.
In this week’s food scandal, Shoprite and Spar were again accused of being at fault.
Spar’s marketing executive, Mike Prentice, said the stores concerned had “undertaken to correct” the irregularities after the investigations in June.
But he expressed frustration that the commission would not provide the reports to Spar.
“We take food-safety legislation seriously, and having sight of these reports would help us to assist our individual retailers in complying, as well as taking disciplinary action,” said Mr Prentice.
Shoprite said that it had investigated the matter, and “taken disciplinary action where applicable”.
Although the commission was clear that Shoprite was an offending party, the food chain run by Whitey Basson claimed surprisingly that there was no specific finding that any Shoprite store tampered with labels or applied false labels.
“According to our knowledge, the oversights relating to expiry dates found by inspectors in Shoprite were isolated,” it said.
Shoprite said that an average store carried up to 30,000 food products, and human errors occurred from time to time.
However, rivals have turned up the heat.
Massmart said changing the labels was “illegal” and would, in its company, “result in immediate disciplinary action”. The company, which owns Game and FoodCo, said it had “pro-actively initiated an immediate internal review to reinforce labelling standards”.
The Times newspaper reported this week that Ntsako Khoza, the head of the NCC’s inspection team, said one shop manager had admitted he had instructed his staff to remove the labels from products that had passed their expiry date.
He claimed he did not have enough time to sell the products, and was losing money.
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