I was horrified by the figures quoted on a recent TV news broadcast about the number of people, families and children who go to bed hungry every day. Whereas these people struggle to survive, supermarkets and restaurants are discarding crates and crate of food on a daily basis. The latest food story to hit the news is the 700kg of food that was dumped by Air Chefs, a division of SA Airways.
The obvious question that springs to mind is: "When food suppliers are forced to throw away tons of food each day, why can’t that food be given to our starving people?"
Laws that prevent handouts
For centuries, whenever food was cooked on a large scale, the leftover foods were distributed to the poor and needy after the king, bishop or aristocrat, had finished eating.
Nowadays, however, there are many different factors that prevent food suppliers from allowing hungry people to eat food that has not been specifically prepared for them or is not totally fresh.
Two laws in particular guard our population against offers of food that is not 100% fresh.
a) Labelling regulations
The SA Labelling Regulations published in 2010, very specifically demand that all food products must display a "sell by" or "display until" and a "use by" or "best consumed before" or expiry date’ on their labels.
According to the R. 146 (2010), “sell by” or “display by” means “the last date of offer for sale to the consumer after which there remains a reasonable storage period at home”.
“Use by” and all the other variations listed above, means “the date which signifies the end of the estimated period under the stated storage conditions, after which the product probably will not have the quality attributes normally expected by the consumers and after which date the food should not be regarded as marketable” (Government Gazette, 2010).
Because fresh products are so perishable, they have relatively short “sell by” and “use by” dates. If such produce (fresh fruit, vegetables, milk, baked goods, raw meat or fish, etc), is over its “sell by” and “use by” dates, the shop owner or restauranteur is compelled by law to dispose of these foods. Such food products cannot be sold of course, but they may also not be given away, at least publicly. Doing so would bring the wrath of the government inspectors down on the food purveyors’ heads.
b) The Consumer Protection Act
The Consumer Protection Act 68 of 2008, which “sets out the minimum requirements to ensure adequate consumer protection”, is on the one hand, vital to protect consumers against being ill-used by anyone delivering a service, but on the other hand, this Act hamstrings anyone who would want to give away even a morsel of food that can in any way be regarded as not at the peak of quality.
Thus anyone who can afford food is well protected, but anyone who is impoverished and starving may be prevented from receiving food donations because donors fear prosecution. It is important to differentiate here between donating food that is still perfectly edible and the type of food that was dumped in Strand, near Cape Town, in 2011 which was four years or more over its expiry date and caused many people who had eaten this spoiled food to fall seriously ill. Needless to say, in that case the community threatened to lay criminal charges against the companies involved for dumping the expired, potentially hazardous food (Booi, 2011).
Most restaurants and food retailers throw food that is past its sell-by date away or sell it to farmers to feed their livestock. No one wants the responsibility of deciding if such food could still be safely used for human consumption, or not, because of fear of legal consequences.
Another factor that often hampers philanthropic food distribution, is the cost of transporting excess and perfectly edible foods, especially fruit, vegetables, milk, etc, to needy communities.
I became aware of this stumbling block years ago when I worked for a fresh produce distribution organisation. When "mountains" of the fruit in question were left to rot on farms because of an oversupply, the newspapers demanded to know why this healthy food was not being given to hungry people. The answer was that there was no one prepared to pay the transport of the fruit from the farms to the hungry people - not the farmers who were already staggering under financial losses, not the railways, not the truckers and not even charitable organisations had the money to pay for transporting the fruit to their needy members.
In Europe this type of dilemma is taken even further when farmers are paid NOT to produce food because of a "cheese mountain" or a "lake of milk". This is the kind of situation where common sense and humanity are defeated by economic principles.
Charity begins at home
While I fully support the selfless humanitarian efforts of South African organisations that provide food to starving people in Mali, Somalia, Haiti and many other troubled areas all over the world, I think the time has come for attention to be paid to the dire needs of our own people. At a time when more than 35 000 charitable organisations and NGOs, many of which are involved with feeding impoverished South Africans in this country, have being deregistered due to so-called "non-compliance" (Child, 2013), we need a concerted and coordinated effort to feed our people. Charity does after all start at home!
Imagine if the R102 billion that was allegedly spent by government departments on a variety of advisers (Magome, 2013) could be spent on feeding those South Africans who go to bed hungry every night. What a difference that would make to our beloved Rainbow Nation, especially our children.
- (Dr IV van Heerden, DietDoc, January 2013)
(Photo of begging hands taken by homeros/Shutterstock.com)
(References: Booi M (2011). Community to lay charges against companies selling expired food. Eye Witness News. 13 January 2011; Child K (2013). NGOs dealt a fatal blow. The Times, Thursday 24 January 2013, pp: 1,3; Consumer Protection Act, No 68 of 2008. https://www.saica.co.za/TechnicalInformation/ LegalandGovernance/Legislation/; Government Gazette (2010). Foodstuffs, Cosmetics & Disinfectants Act, 1972 (Act 54 of 1972). No. R 146, 1 March 2010. Regulations Relating to the Labelling & Advertising of Foodstuffs. Government Notice No. 32975. Government Printer, Pretoria; Magome M (2013). Consultants rake in billions. Pretoria News, Friday 25 January 2013, p. 1)
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Dr Ingrid van Heerden is a registered dietician and holds a doctoral degree in Nutrition and Biochemistry. She believes that "we are what we eat" and offers free nutrition and weight loss advice via her DietDoc service on Health24.com.