10 May 2011

Food labelling legislation - will it help consumers?

The new food labelling and advertising legislation, to be implemented on 1 March 2012, will have a number of weaknesses which may disadvantage SA consumers, DietDoc writes.

South Africans have been waiting for 17 years for new food labelling and advertising legislation to kick in. Unfortunately this new set of rules, to be implemented on 1 March 2012, has a number of weaknesses which may disadvantage SA consumers, says DietDoc.  

Food labelling legislation - will it help consumers?

The Regulations Relating to the Labelling and Advertising of Foodstuffs, No. R. 146 of the Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act, 1972 (Act 54 of 1972) have the following advantages (among others) for consumers:

  • They specify a standard method of conveying information about foodstuffs to the consumer. As of next year, all food labels and advertising will have to conform to the same format. After 1 March 2012, all the superlatives and often ludicrous claims used on food labels and in advertising will disappear
  • They will ensure a fair comparison between products
  • They enforce truthful descriptions and prevent the propagation of misleading and ambiguous messages regarding the characteristics of the foods and beverages that are on sale to the public in South Africa
  • If a food manufacturer includes a ‘Typical Nutritional Information Table’ on a food label, he will be allowed to state that the given food is ‘A source of’, or ‘High in’ or ‘Low in’ or ‘Virtually free of’ or ‘Free of’ a given nutrient or nutrients. This will enable consumers to check which foods they elect to purchase if they are, for example, looking for foods that are low in fat or high in vitamins, etc
  • The specifications relating to allergens are well formulated and anyone with an allergy triggered by the so-called ‘common allergens’ (i.e. egg, cow’s milk, crustaceans and molluscs, fish, peanuts, soybeans, tree nuts and significant cereals, which include wheat, kamut, spelt, rye, barley, oats or crossbred hybrids of these cereals), will only have to check the list of ingredients to see at a glance if the food contains one or more of these allergens. Such food labels will also have to display a notice ‘Contains milk, etc’
  • The use of ‘No sugar added’ will be prohibited for all foods that inherently contain any type of sugar. Fruit juices, for example, which inherently contain high levels of fructose, fruit concentrates, etc, but no added table sugar, may thus no longer display a ‘No added sugar’ claim on their labels.
  • No label may make a so-called ‘Negative content claim’ if all the foods in the same category are also free of the specific nutrient. This means that plant oils which presently state that they are ‘Cholesterol free’ as an advertising ploy, will have to change their statement to ‘A naturally cholesterol free food’ because all plant oils are actually free of cholesterol.

  • Any foodstuff for which a so-called ‘Nutrition Function Claim’ could be made (e.g. the high bioavailable calcium content of milk and dairy products, which may prevent osteoporosis), will not be allowed to display any such information on the food label(s) or in adverts for the benefit of users. A milk drink label will be allowed to state ‘A food naturally high in calcium’, but no mention will be made of its effect on osteoporosis. 
  • ‘Enhanced function claims’ will also be in limbo, so the public cannot be informed if a manufacturer has added nutrients to a food product to improve its nutritive value. We will have to do our own detective work and compare the labels of similar foodstuffs to see if product X contains more dietary fibre (for example) than product Y. Most literate consumers with a keen interest in nutrition or a specific dietary need, will probably be able to figure out which of these two products has the higher content of dietary fibre, but many shoppers may well not have the time to figure out this information on their own
  • Any product that contains pre- and probiotics is not covered by the new Regulations and no disclosures about beneficial microorganisms or compounds which promote their growth in the gastrointestinal tract, will be allowed after 1 March 2012
  • The labelling of slimming and diabetic products has also not yet been addressed, which means that people who want to lose weight or have diabetes or insulin resistance will be in the dark about any food products that may, or may not be beneficial to their condition. You will be able to work out for yourself which foods are low in energy, fat, saturated fat and cholesterol, to name but a few of the characteristics sought by slimmers and patients with insulin problems, but all specific slimming and diabetic products will not be identifiable.
  • No specifications have so far been published regarding the mention of the glycaemic index (GI) on labels or in advertising. So a manufacturer of a food with a low-GI will not be able to mention this fact on the label of his product or advertise that product as low-GI after 1 March 2012.


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