Comment on new food labelling regulations

Comment on SA’s newly-promulgated food labelling regulations: praise from dietiticans and some strong criticism from a prominent scientist.

Food labelling, there is something in it for everybody

The Association for Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA) welcomes the publication of the new food labelling regulations. Rene Smalberger, President of ADSA states: “”Food labelling has been a source of consumer information for many years. The regulations ensure that information provided on labels will not mislead consumers and provides useful nutrition information. The update of the regulations includes clarity on information on the presence of allergens and also ensures that food products that claim to be high or low in a certain nutrient meet the claims.””

ADSA says that as food labels increasingly reflect modern health concerns, they can help consumers to take responsibility for their nutritional well being. Appropriate education can show how to apply the information to meal planning. For example:

Nutrition information on labels: Foods that make a health claim must provide nutrition information, in a standard format. This helps consumers to see just how low in fat, or high in fibre the food is. Foods that do not make a health claim may provide this information on a voluntary basis, but the standard format must be used. Smalberger adds, “The use of the standard format simplifies consumer education. Registered dietitians can teach consumers what to look for, and how to fit foods into their eating plan.”

Ingredient lists: These are required on labels of all foods with more than one ingredient. Ingredients are listed in descending order of mass. Reading the ingredient list may reveal useful information about the product, for example a fruit juice blend named ‘Cranberry and Strawberry’ contains mostly apple juice, followed by strawberry then cranberry. 

Comment from Dr Francois Mellett

When I read our current regulations, I am truly amazed on how facts were twisted, overseen and ignored. I would like to point out a few of these:

1.  Serving suggestion

The Act takes care of false and misleading statements, while the Minister may make regulations in accordance with the Act.  He did so, way back in 1930, and did a great job. We are all very familiar with the “Serving Suggestion” overlaid or in close proximity of a pictorial presentation suggesting the use of a particular foodstuff, ie a steaming cup of soup on a packet of instant soup powder. The new regulation makes this false and misleading, and the words “Serving Suggestion” are gone. Was this an oversight?

2.  Misquotes from the literature

A Grade 8 scholar in mathematics and chemistry will be able to tell you that the ratio of Na:Cl is not 40:60, not by any means of arithmetic and/or rounding rules. A first year student in science will be able to tell you how to determine chloride in a lab and derive at salt content of a foodstuff by using the molecular mass of sodium (22.9898) and chloride (35.453). Yet, in SA salt is as defined by the Act, completely and utterly wrong.

What I consider as the biggest scandal of all is the reference to the publication of WHO/FAO/UNU of 2007 in the regulation. We are lead to believe that the amino acid requirements of children is quoted from this respected publication. It is not.  The values in Annex 5 does not appear in WHO/FAO/UNU of 2007. We are further lead to believe that this respected publication assumes that all proteins are equally digestible. This is outrageous and very, very ignorant. The table of reference in WHO/FAO/UNU of 2007 is Table 36 on page 180. Here amino acid requirements are expressed two different ways, and the averages are not as reported in the Gazette. This was pointed out to the DoH before publication. The remainder of the document is devoted to digestibility of protein, a subject that every mono-gastric nutritionist is very familiar with. Yet, these facts are ignored, the mathematics done wrong, and provision is made for expensive laboratories to do meaningless analysis, ignoring science and numerous articles published.  Which leads me to my next point.

3.  Post mortem analysis of foods

After-the–fact analysis and QC died a number of years ago. This was replaced by process control and food safety systems. It still serves a purpose for positive release systems. Food formulation, fortification and digestibility of different foodstuffs are of the utmost importance. The fate of amino acids during preparation of food samples for analysis is very well documented. This evidence is discarded by the regulations.

I am a director of several food companies and currently a visiting professor at the University of Stellenbosch with a fair bit of experience in academia and the international food business, their rules and regulations and I am highly disappointed by the ignorance of our department. Talking about false, misleading and deceptive, these deliberate misquotes qualify as being false, misleading and deceptive. What a pity, defeating the objective of the Act.

Dr Francois Mellett (Pr Sci Nat 400069/06)